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Interview with Sal Castro by Diane Velarde-Hernandez (Part II)

Sal B. Castro has been a life-long Los Angeles school teacher. In the 1960s and 1970s, he became a leader in the tumultuous school battles of East LA, culminating in the 1968 school “blowouts” in which thousands of students from schools such as Lincoln, Roosevelt, Garfield and Wilson walked out to demand better education and respect for the majority Mexican students. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Sal also lived in the Belmont-Echo Park area. He attended Cathedral High School in Chinatown. He dedicated his life to the betterment of Xicanos and Xicanas everywhere. Diane Velarde-Hernandez has been an educator at San Fernando High School for almost 28 years. She has led many struggles to advance educational opportunities for her students, particularly in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.

DIANE: What was the straw that broke the camel's back and basically led to the creation of the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference?

SAL: I have to go back to when I was a grad student at Cal State LA. They organized a Mexican-American Education Committee that was going to the Board of Education and made recommendations about some problems in the schools. The LA County Board of Supervisors ran the committee. When I joined I was the youngest member. I met Irene Tovar, Miguel Montes, Estella Torres, the wife of future congressman Esteban Torres, Nestor Bravo, a doctor, and other prominent people.

Nestor was the chair. The committee came up with tame suggestions on how to improve the schools. The Sheldon Study had come out already, and then there was also a study by the state-known as the F.E.P.C. These studies said that Mexican kids weren't going to college-Mexican kids were dropping out. They weren't succeeding. They asked for several things to be done, but the Board more or less rejected all of them, except one. They started a thing called Urban Affairs Liaisons. But it was like another wall-you could open a door and close it kind of thing. That's about the only thing they came up with.

But I'd seen some of the recommendations. Interestingly enough, I put some of these recommendations into the demands of the kids four or five years later. I started talking to the kids about how it was critical they write down their concerns about the school-whether it was a good place to eat, whether there was cover when it rained and they went to eat lunch. I talked to kids from other schools that had gone to the conference. They had the same complaints-the exact same things were happening at the schools they were coming from. The problems were universal across the board. I talked to the kids at the conference about some of the things that had to be done. I kept in touch with those kids. Those kids wanted to get involved, so we started having meetings at different people's houses back in 1966 and '67.

The hot issue was bringing in college students to help the kids learn how to read. I said no-if you're going to bring in college students to help them read, don't bail out the teachers. The teachers need to teach the kids and help them to read. Also, some of these teachers wanted the college students to help without paying them. I said I'd pay the students for their help. I went around to the different colleges-UCLA, East L.A. College, Cal State L.A., even Long Beach State-and I started talking to the students. I said, "Hey, don't be suckered into that reading program. If they want you there, tell them to pay you, okay? Because what you're really doing is bailing out the teachers. It's their problem that they've been too pendejo to deal with the kids."

Why did I say that? Because if a teacher is interested in dealing with a kid, they need to believe that the kid can read, simple as that. If you give him the confidence to believe that he can read, if you motivate him in a positive way, the kid will read. It's not difficult. It's not like brain surgery. You can do that, teachers can do that, but instead they say Mexican kids don't know how to read. They can't read! Well, teach them how to read-simple as that. But they used this as an excuse to bring in the college kids.

As a result of my talks with students, we got around to saying that something had to be done. I even remember talking to my father. He was an organizer in Mazatlan, Mexico among railroad workers. He had been thrown in jail for organizing. Later, I went to Riverside to the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) Convention. That's when all these guys with red flags took over the convention. They took over the stage and I saw this little dude. That was Cesar Chavez. I talked to him and I thought, this dude knows something.

End of Part II
Read Part I
Part III will be continued in the next issue of Xispas.com

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