50 years since East L.A. walkouts

Cassandra Alacron remembers her experiences during her time at Garfield High School

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic East L.A. high school walkouts. Cassandra Alarcon of Garfield High School, the first school to walk out in 1968, visited Cal Poly Pomona this last Monday, Oct. 29, to share what her experience was like as a student leader during such a controversial time.

Garfield High School Student Leader Cassandra Alarcon and Professor Jose Aguilar- Hernandez speak to a group of students in the University Library. (Courtesy of Kris Zoleta)

Alarcon recalls her involvement in the student protests began during the summer of her sophomore year. Alarcon and other students participated in a summer program where they were taught about nonviolent protests and how to stand up for what you believe in without causing violence.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college, even before high school but I knew at Garfield I wasn’t receiving the same opportunities as students from other schools,” Alarcon recalled.

“One of my good friends who studied often would get teased by teachers. They would give her a hard time for studying and tell her she would just get pregnant and drop out so what was the point.”

Alarcon was not alone in her frustration. Hundreds of Mexican American students from East L.A. high schools such as Roosevelt, Lincoln and Garfield were motivated to protest due to the plethora of problems and unjust treatment they received while at school. Specifically, issues such as lack of inclusion of Mexican American history and bilingual opportunities within the curriculum, deteriorating campuses, uninvolved teachers, absence of college resources and discriminatory treatment.

The students voices yelling out “ Viva la revolución” as they walked were heard across the nation. It brought awareness to the Chicano movement at the highest levels of the government.

“A few weeks after the walkouts, myself and other students who protested got to meet Robert F. Kennedy when he was running for senator at the time,” Alarcon said. “We met him at a small airport in Los Angeles, and he just told all of us we had his support. It was a great feeling knowing we had the support of someone like him.”

Alarcon witnessed the walkouts firsthand. (Courtesy of Kris Zoleta)

The immediate change Alarcon saw from the walkouts was the creation of a Chicano club at Garfield High School. Another important change that Alarcon acknowledges as the creation of an ethnic studies degree option offered at surrounding colleges. Before the walkouts such majors did not exist.

Alarcon, who is now a retired high school counselor, advised students for 34 ½ years in the Whittier Union High School District. She credits her motivation to become a high school counselor from the lack of good, quality counselors she experienced at Garfield High School.

Assistant Professor Jose Aguilar-Hernandez of the ethnic and women’s studies department, the one to invite Alarcon to CPP, said, “The goal behind inviting Cassandra was for students at CPP to hear her background and what it was like being a student in East L.A. during the walkouts. It was really about having our students get familiar with this history and showing students how important it is to get involved.”

Although there have been improvements and change since the 1968 walkouts, there has not been enough change. Several schools in working-class communities like East L.A. are still severely underfunded and under-resourced.

Just because we are celebrating 50 years of walkouts doesn’t mean we stop envisioning improvements to make these schools better, Aguilar said.

Aguilar suggested that students who want to learn about such historical movements should take courses about inequality and social change.

He emphasized the importance of students knowing about their history, especially if they want to go into education, they need to be aware of such events and see how student involvement can help facilitate change.

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