March 17, 2006,
You’d need a heart of stone not to root for the plucky, fresh-faced kids in Walkout, a new HBO film about Mexican-American teenagers who in 1968 organized classroom walkouts to protest conditions at their East Los Angeles high schools. The movie, which premieres March 18, is directed by actor and activist Edward James Olmos, and depicts Latino students locked out of school bathrooms at lunch, discouraged from applying to college, and paddled for speaking Spanish in class. Their peaceful demonstration got them in trouble with school officials and beaten by police, while the teacher who inspired them was arrested and faced with a possible prison sentence of 66 years (the charges were later dropped). But in the end, by golly, the school board was forced to pay attention.
Real life, though, has a sad habit of not playing out the way it should according to Hollywood. The students’ list of 39 demands included not only access to school bathrooms (which of course never should have been denied in the first place) but compulsory bilingual education and an end to janitorial duties as discipline. But since the argument for keeping all kids out of the bathrooms was that some kids trashed them, it’s hard to see how forcing a few miscreants to push a broom now and then was cruel and unusual punishment.
More problematic is the enduring policy issue of bilingual education begun by these protests. The walkouts ushered in three decades of herding native Spanish-speaking students into a patronizing ethnic and linguistic ghetto, broken only when California’s Prop. 227 severely scaled back bilingual education here in 1998. As it happens, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the state’s anti-bilingual backlash, which began when Skid Row activist and Episcopal priest Alice Callaghan organized about 100 Spanish-speaking parents who wanted their Ninth Street Elementary children to learn English in class.
In the film, spunky 17-year-old heroine Paula Crisostomo, now an administrator at Occidental College, has a friend and fellow protester named Vickie, who (at the end we learn) grew up to be Victoria Castro, L.A. school board member from 1993 to 1997 and board president in 1998. The film doesn’t mention that after Castro refused to help those frustrated Ninth Street parents, they staged a walkout of their own, an incident that inspired Ron Unz to back Prop. 227 two years later. In a 1998 column for the defunct alt-weekly New Times Los Angeles, muckraking columnist Jill Stewart noted that “Castro’s arrogance and stupidity led directly to the launching of the anti-bilingual ed movement.”
No one from that side of the story is mentioned in the film. Julian Nava, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and school-board member during the Walkout events, makes an appearance, but not his nemesis Jaime Escalante, the East L.A. high-school math teacher made famous in Stand and Deliver. (Walkout director Olmos starred as Escalante in that movie). In another New Times piece, Stewart noted that Nava and Escalante “butted heads over how Mexican children should learn English and other academic subjects. Although it is not generally known, one of the reasons Escalante left Los Angeles was over his disgust with L.A. school bureaucrats who accepted Chicano demands for teaching immigrant children in Spanish...He lost that battle, and Nava won.”
The adult hero of Walkout is history teacher Sal Castro, who as the film opens expresses outrage that classroom textbooks don’t contain the vital information that thousands of Chicanos fought in the Civil War. The dramatized Castro is magnetically intense but soft-spoken; in real life three decades later he’s a monomaniacal crank. When asked at the HBO press conference what’s changed in education since the film’s events, Castro said, “not a goddamned thing.”
Really? Not in 30 years? I asked Castro how that could be, when the pendulum has swung from kids being swatted for speaking Spanish in class, to forced bilingual education, to our current post-Prop. 227 situation. Ambitious Latino students now wonder why the only foreign-language instruction available to many of them is Spanish, a language they already speak.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘You guys aren’t smart enough to take anything else,’” a North Hollywood high-school senior who wanted to learn French complained to the Los Angeles Times.
“No, ma’am, here you go,” snapped Castro in response. “That’s the problem counselors in our school were programming kids to learn French. What Mexican family can help their kid with French homework?” He added that he bet I didn’t know the oldest university in the Western hemisphere was the University of Mexico, or about all the Mexican Americans who fought in the Civil War, or that I’d even heard of a woman named Ellen Ochoa: “A Chicana astronaut, ma’am. You didn’t know it.”
And it’s true I didn’t. But even from across the room it must have been obvious I’d been out of school for decades, so I can’t see how my not knowing any of this backed up Castro’s point that nothing has changed in the curriculum since Walkout.
As it happens, my 16-year-old daughter Maia attends a big urban public high school that, like most schools in L.A. now, is mostly Latino. They even had a walkout there a few months ago, ostensibly to protest the war in Iraq, although I heard that many kids who participated were actually attracted by the fliers distributed by outside organizers promoting free flavored condoms. So some things haven’t changed, but some things have.
Maia’s college-bound classmates include a Mexican-American girl, a pair of sisters from Bangladesh, and a Russian immigrant named Julia who just got accepted to Harvard. Somehow, Julia managed to learn enough U.S. history to accomplish this despite a complete lack of information from her teachers about Russians who fought in the Civil War. I imagine there must have been a few. But as Sal Castro might say, you’d never know it from the textbooks.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.