In 1968, students in East Los Angeles high schools realized they weren’t receiving access to the same opportunities as their peers. After months of organizing, more than 20,000 students boycotted school in a massive protest that some say ignited the Mexican American civil rights movement. Students ran down halls screaming “Walkout!” as a way to encourage their peers to participate.
This year, the 15th annual César Chávez Convocation, organized by the Chicano Latino Resource Center and the Colleges Nine & Ten CoCurricular Programs Office, honored the 1968 East Los Angeles walkouts as a way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the walkouts.
The Convocation featured a panel with Robert “Bobby” Lee Verdugo and Margarita “Mita” Cuaron, two lifelong activists who helped organize the walkouts when they were in high school. Three other organizers, Yolanda “Yoli” Rios, John Ortiz and Paula Crisostomo, were also set to talk on the panel but were unable to. Ortiz, a lifelong activist, passed away on May 10 and Rios has been dealing with ongoing health issues. Crisostomo stayed home to spend time with her family.
Every year the Convocation honors the legacy of César Chávez, a civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. Past speakers include United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
In front of a crowd of 200, Verdugo and Cuaron gave emotional testimonials about their experiences as Mexican Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Both spoke about what motivated them to organize around an unequal education system that ignored their potential and mischaracterized Mexican Americans as passive.
“I didn’t know I was marginalized,” said Cuaron, who attended Garfield High School. “I didn’t know that there would be no opportunities for me, that there would be no options.”
Despite the dismissive reactions from teachers and administrators, Cuaron emphasized the passion felt by students who participated in the walkouts and highlighted the impact that their actions had on creating a more welcoming space for Chicanxs and Latinxs students in schools. The 36 demands the students presented ranged from basic needs to new libraries but only two of them, more bilingual faculty and smaller class sizes, were met immediately.
Verdugo, an activist and community organizer, was a senior at Lincoln High School in 1968. Although it was too late for him, Verdugo said he was inspired to participate in the walkouts because he didn’t want the system to fail others in the same way it had failed him.
The oldest of three brothers, Verdugo knew he had to do something.
“I became very politicized, a lot of us did,” Verdugo said. “We enjoyed our teenage years but we had to grow up really fast.”
Attendee and UCSC third year Cynthia Janette Rafael Jiménez, who wants to be a teacher, came to the convocation to engage with the pioneers who had paved the way for a more inclusive educational system.
“We have a tendency to be stuck in our busy lives so we forget to look back and reflect on where we’re coming from and why we’re doing the work we do,” Rafael Jiménez said.
Throughout the night, both Mita Cuaron and Bobby Verdugo spoke about recent actions taken by students, such as protests and marches in response to gun violence. Verdugo spoke about the similarities between the students who walked out in 1968 and the students who are taking direct action today on issues such as gun violence and police brutality.
Although conditions haven’t changed all that much since 1968, Verdugo knows that young people today will take it upon themselves to continue the fight.
“How far have we come? Where do we need to go?” Verdugo said. “The walkouts lasted that year but it didn’t end there, the struggle continues.”