Walkout highlights Chicano history. MOVIE REVIEW

On March 18, the HBO cable television network premiered “Walkout,” a film based on the 1968 protest by thousands of Mexican American students from five East Lost Angeles high schools.

On March 27, some 40,000 high school students in Southern California walked out to protest of anti-immigration legislation. “Walkout” director Edward James Olmos was right when he said the struggle for equality and civil rights is far from over.

Back in 1968, Latino students were tired of racial injustice, discrimination in the school system and lack of equal opportunities. The youth came together and led a multi-school walkout that became part of the rising Chicano movement. “Walkout” shares that historic story.

The movie shows how students organized walkouts after lobbying the school board for improved facilities, bilingual education, revised textbooks and the ability to speak Spanish in class without being reprimanded.

The youth-led movement, inspired by the civil rights movement, also demanded implemention of a curriculum that included Latin American history, and elimination of janitorial work as punishment.

“Our schools are the back of the bus,” yelled one student leader in the movie.

The walkouts were peaceful demonstrations that erupted into unnecessary acts of violence when an overzealous and aggressive racist police force beat and arrested unarmed students.

An outraged community was awakened and a fight for justice was born that first got parents involved, then community leaders, eventually forcing the school board to pay attention.

In the end the Chicano movement produced real changes, increasing Latino college enrollment by nearly 25 percent two years after the protest.

Moctesuma Esparza, who produced the film, was a college student at the time.

He was one of the main organizers of the student walkouts of that time and was arrested with 12 others — “East L.A. 13,” as they became known. All were eventually acquitted.

“I remember, growing up in the ’50s, when someone said you were ‘Mexican’ it was almost like being slapped in the face,” the 57-year-old recalled in a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle.

Esparza went on to say, “How one’s ancestry could be pejorative is hard to grasp today, but there have been people who have experienced discrimination and overcame it, and that’s one of the things we were looking to do, to stand up for our rights and be treated like all other Americans.

“The free speech movement of ’64 at Berkeley, the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, what Cesar Chavez was doing in the fields and the growing women’s movement were all very vivid examples to us.

“There was a feeling we could change the world,” he concluded. “That’s what protected and motivated us.”

While some have said it’s not the best-made film, its focus on this youth-led struggle is inspirational for activists today. Young people are still under attack by reactionary policies, racism, poor education and a war going on. With united struggle, change is possible.


Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.