Chicano culture, art, and politics

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

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: First, let me ask you some questions about your family—are you married or...?

SAL: No, I've been divorced for many years.

DIANE: How many kids do you have?

SAL: Two boys and two grandsons.

DIANE: How did your activities impact your family?

SAL: Well, it may have caused the divorce in part because I was always gone to meetings and organizing.

DIANE: Who were your role models when you were growing up?

SAL: Probably some ball players. But growing up, I didn't feel too close to any one person of prominence other than I might get excited when I saw an extra in the movies playing a positive Mexican role. But they were mostly athletes and a few movie stars.

DIANE: I've heard you mention how at certain times in your life you went to school in Mexico.

SAL: I was born here and started school in kindergarten at Belvedere Elementary School. I went across the border to Mexico because of my father. When I was around two or three, we lived in East LA on Hubbard Street. My mother and my father had met in the United States and got married here. But she had her green card—whatever they called it—and my old man didn't. He was working as a baker then. Times in the country got hard during the Depression. The government swept up Mexicans, getting them out of here because they claimed that the economy was bad because of the Mexicans. History repeats itself, doesn't it?

DIANE: Oh, yeah.

SAL: Anyway, he had to go back to Mexico—Mazatlan and Sinaloa. My mother was from Navojoa, Sonora. But for her to maintain her papers, she had to go back every six months to Mexico. And so during one of the times she went down, she took me with her. I had to stay there because I was going to start the first grade up here after I had been to kindergarten, but I got the measles real bad. I had to stay and recuperate because I was quarantined. So my mother came back to East LA and I stayed with my aunts. They enrolled me in a little school. My first grade was in a little private elementary school in Mazatlan. Since we're talking about role models, I learned about Cuahtemoc, and he became a role model. He was a young kid, 17 years old, who held off the Spanish. I thought that was really exciting. It was a cultural shock to be in that school for a year and a half. When I returned to the U.S. speaking mostly Spanish, the teachers would put me in a corner. At that time I was at Rowan Avenue School in Los Angeles. They'd sit me in a corner like a dunce because I couldn't speak English. I used to think these teachers were dumb because they were so big and couldn't speak Spanish.

DIANE: Where did you go to college?

SAL: I started to go to Cal—UC Berkeley. But because I had a teenage sweetheart from Our Lady of Loreto High School, we planned on getting married after I got out of the Army. Then I started thinking it would be great to go to college because I had been at William and Mary University when I was stationed in the South. I thought "God damn, this is a great life going to college." But the train had left the station and my girlfriend wanted to get married, so I said "yes." I wanted to go to Cal but I wound up getting married. I left the Army in July and got married in August of that year. By September, I was at LA City College because that was the only place I could go to because my wife didn’t want me up at Cal. So I started at City and from City I went to Cal State, LA. In fact, this was so long ago that Cal State L.A. was called LA State and their first campus was across from City College, right on Vermont in an old Safeway market that they’ve moved across to the campus now.

DIANE: Why did you become a teacher?

SAL: I started out wanting to be an audio engineer; that was my original major. Well, let me finish the story about my family. My mother and father got divorced because they drifted apart. She had to go to Mexico and he didn't want to go back to the United States. So they divorced when I was ten years old. She then married a shoe repairman. My first job was working part-time as a 12-year-old at my stepfather’s shoe repair shop. Then I started working sweatshops in the downtown area because all my aunts worked there as pressers or seamstresses. I went out on my own to get a job and I got a taste of business. I used to see all of these dudes in suits and I’d say “Man, I wish I could put on a suit and be bad.” Then I was drafted into the Army. I was anxious to go overseas because I wanted to come back and get married. I got drafted for the Korean War, but when I was going in the peace accord was signed, so I didn't have to go to Korea after all.

I probably could say that my real first job was getting 25 cents a day at another job that I had in East L.A. People don't believe me when I tell them that in East L.A. during World War II there used to be people in horse-drawn carts going up and down the streets looking for rags and bottles. There was one Jewish dude with a black coat, a black cat and a long beard. He used to pay me 25 cents a day to go into backyards and look for bottles because he used to get 25 cents for the bottles. Also, my cousin was a jukebox operator. He used to go to the different restaurants and bars and change the records in the jukeboxes, the 78s. I used to tag along with him as a little kid, nine or ten years old. He paid me 25 cents. Big deal, but I liked the idea of dealing with music and records—I figured, "Hey, that's great." As I got older I thought that would be a great thing to do—be an audio engineer. I liked music. I liked trying to reproduce music that sounded real, not loud, but real. That was my original major in college. Before I went into the Army, the very last job I had was working at the Bullocks Store downtown. After I went into the Army and returned, I couldn't get a job at Bullocks Downtown. They gave me a job at Bullocks Wilshire—man, the racism of that place! Later I'll get into other cases of racism because I was Mexican; just ask me and I'll give you a long litany of this. For one thing, I couldn't be a salesman at Bullocks Wilshire; I had to be a stock boy or run the elevator or work in the kitchen. But as a Mexican, you could not be a salesman at Bullocks Wilshire; it was an exclusive store on Wilshire Boulevard.

DIANE: What year?

SAL: 1955 or 1956. I worked as a stock boy. One of the guys at Bullocks Wilshire also worked as an assistant playground director at Echo Park; they were hiring kids at the college to work there. He was working part-time, so I said, "Do you think they might hire me?" He said, "Yeah, try it." So they hired me as an assistant playground director. I dealt with kids on a formal basis. I liked doing this and the kids liked me. I thought this was really fun working with little kids. So I changed my major and then decided to go into teaching just from being with the chavalos in Echo Park.

DIANE: When did you begin your career as a high school teacher?

SAL: All of my life. The first job I had with LA City was in 1956 or ‘57. I was a playground director with the youth services at Solano Avenue. Some of the kids came from Chavez Ravine, right smack during the change (the forced relocation of the mostly Mexican residents to build Dodger Stadium), when all this commotion was going on about Chavez Ravine. I've been dealing with kids all of my adult young life. In fact, I have a photograph of me as a playground director this big. I also had a Little League team out of Solano Avenue. One of the kids who played for me was Chuckie Moreno; he was my second base man. I used to take him from Solano to Echo Park and they would play in a league over there, which the Optimist Club sponsored—the Solano Avenue Tigers. Later, when I was a teacher at Lincoln High School, I saw the same Chuckie Moreno. He was now an 11th grader. I took him and another of my students to a meeting. In those days, it was called “The Mexican-American Youth Leadership Conference;” this was around 1957. Chuckie wanted to be a lawyer. There used to be a Knight organization, an honor organization, and he was one of the Knights. I have a picture of him among the Knights. I didn't hear from him again. He went on to Yale and then, two years ago, I see the headline in the paper "Carlos Moreno appointed to the State Supreme Court." That was my Chuckie Moreno.

DIANE: Jumping ahead a bit when you were a young teacher—I think that was about the time you put your career on the line as a student advocate. What conditions existed in the educational system that caused you to jeopardize your job?

SAL: Well, kids were being treated terribly—lack of respect, lack of dealing with students with dignity, lack of concern for these kids and their background and whether they learned or not, the ambivalence of whether the kids went onto college. Most of the teachers had the attitude that these kids weren't going to college, that they were all going to get married and have big families. “What can we do,” they’d say. “They're all going back to Mexico and forget all of the English we taught them during the summer; it's a losing proposition.” They had a lack of concern for the kids' future, a lack of feeling for their welfare. This showed in the tracking they used to do—girls that were very capable were put in secretarial science. By the way, when I'm talking about Mexican kids, I don't say "Latino" because when I was going through the system when you said "Latino" you meant "Mexican" because that's all there was. The boys, if they were good with their hands, were pushed into auto shop. They never talked about being a dentist or a brain surgeon—hell no! You'd be a damned mechanic or a plumber or bricklayer because you're good with your hands. There was not a speck of concern for the chavalitos about wanting to move them on to college. If a kid was extremely bright, the kid had to be “gifted” in order for teachers to figure this kid may be college material. But as far as kids with potential—some had a hell of a lot of potential—the teachers, as far as they were concerned, weren’t going to waste their time.

I used to hear all of these things that teachers would say in the teachers' rooms. In those days there were big teachers' rooms; you smoked in there and anyone that went in the smoking room, you heard all of this stuff. It was all the same crap that teachers talked about—including the lack of understanding of the kids' background. It was criminal and yet these people were college educated. The other criminal part is that the parents trusted these teachers. “If the teachers think my kid can't succeed, I guess he can't,” these parents reasoned. It was tragic. It was sad. The dropout statistics were horrendous. A guy by the name of Sheldon wrote a book. He’s a professor at Occidental College. He did a study of dropouts. You saw it right there in black and white. Also when I was still going to college for the Master's, I did a study and it should have been a Ph.D. study because I really bit off more than I could chew. I interviewed about 500 chavalitos— 9th graders, junior high kids. I went to Hollenbeck Junior High. I went to Belvedere, Virgil, and I think Griffith—no, Stevenson. I interviewed Mexican kids versus Mexican-Americans, as far as achievement and attainment in school. I found that—not knowing what I was walking into—the Mexican National kids had access to education in Mexico that was a hell of a lot better than the schools in the United States. To expose their potential, we set up bilingual education, but it really shouldn’t have been called that, although that was our intent.

During the times I was working at the playgrounds, when I was still going to school, chavalitos would go to the playground and they didn't want to talk about school. Their experiences in school were not very good, not only at Echo Park, but also at Solano Avenue. I later taught at 10th Street School. I worked at 10th Street School as a playground director, which is on Olympic and Figueroa near the Staples Center now. The chavalitos felt exactly the same way, whether they were going to Lincoln, Solano, Belmont, Echo Park, or 10th Street—they hated school. As far as they could see, teachers didn't give a shit—and they didn't.

DIANE: In 1968, can you talk a little bit about what happened, what led up to how and why the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference was created?

SAL: While I was still in college, even back at LA City College, after the Army, I started counting Mexicans. You see, when I went in the Army I had experienced heavy discrimination as an adult. As a kid this happens, but you don't realize it’s happening. My family, for example, never went to picnics at public parks like Griffith Park or the nice parks in West LA. We always went to “Marrano” Beach in East LA because that's where the Mexicans went—we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else. The gabachos would throw the Mexicans out. If they threw you out the cops wouldn't do anything about it, so it was an unenforced discrimination. As a chavalito, I remember a swimming pool right near Virgil High School, which is on Vermont and 1st Street. In fact, the Belmont Theatre was there—the reason I mention the Belmont Theatre is because upstairs they had dancing studios and during the late ‘30s Rita Hayworth and her father used to dance there. She used to rehearse there. Anyway, Mexicans weren’t allowed to go swimming except on Wednesday nights. Blacks, Chinos, and Mexicans only went swimming on Wednesday nights because on Thursdays they’d clean the pool and everybody else could go the rest of the week. I mention chinos—the Chinese—because all the Japanese were in concentration camps. They had been sent away. Anyway, when I went in the Army I left the state for the first time. I went to Dallas, Texas on my way to Fort Jackson, North Carolina. Here I am a 19-year-old kid with a lot of medals because when you get out, you look like a general. I was an infantry rifleman. I had learned how to kill people and so when I got off the plane to wait the two-hour layover at Dallas, I went to the cafeteria and they wouldn't serve me. They would not serve me in Texas with a U.S. Army uniform on in 1954.

The next thing was when I got off the plane at Atlanta, Georgia. They had two drinking fountains and four bathrooms. One fountain said "colored," so you would drink water from that fountain if you were colored; you drank water from another fountain if you were white. If you went to the bathroom, there was a white women’s and a white men’s bathroom. There was a bathroom for colored men and one for colored women. I thought what the hell am I supposed to do? There was confusion. Also, the guy that hired me for youth services, a Greek dude, said when I went there—because after I worked in Echo Park, they said, “Hey, you should work for L.A. City Schools. They pay better”—this guy tells me, "You know, I don't think I want to hire you." I said, "I got experience. I've been working at Echo Park as assistant director." And he said, "No, I don't think I want to hire you because I've already hired one Mexican before and he was always late. I don't think I want to hire you." Then he said, "Hey, wait. I'll give you a chance." He said, "I'll give you a shot." I got hired. So I started counting Mexicans. In the Army, I started counting the Mexican officers. I started figuring out what the hell was going on. When I got out of the Army and began college I started counting Mexicans again. In college I was counting to see how many Mexican teachers there were, how many Mexican principals there were. I asked the kids “Are you on the student council? Are you in this and that?” They thought I was joking about this. But even when I walked into the schools in the early 1960s, there were very few Mexican teachers and they looked like they were afraid. They didn't want to talk too much. Even in the privacy of some of these teachers' rooms they had in junior high schools they didn't want to talk about the problem. It was like Nazi Germany with people in this big building watching everybody.

Before I started teaching at Belmont High School for the first time I had to get a job fast; I already had two kids and I needed a job because of finances. I had to work. It was ridiculous. Anyway, they said they would hire me. I went to Washington Junior High in the fall or winter of 1962. It had 98 percent blacks and no Mexicans; there were a few whites however. I did well there. I guess they liked me. I guess because of my experience working playgrounds, it was easy to work with these kids. But the drive every day was a killer. It was way out in Pasadena. When I returned in the summer, I wanted to go to Belmont, but there was no opening until the fall. No sooner did I get into Belmont, I looked around. Again, what the kids had been telling me was going on in the school—teachers didn't give a shit. At the time the school had about 60 percent Mexicans. There were whites, blacks and Asians but the majority of the kids were Mexican. Yet the student council and the honor societies had no Mexican kids on them. They had a program where they were sending 25 capable seniors to take college classes at Los Angeles City College. You'd think that since the school is 60 percent Mexican, you'd have three or four or five. But not one was being allowed to go and take a college class from LACC. That was ridiculous.

I started thinking, “Well, maybe I could talk to the principal and tell her that something's got to be done. We've got to be inclusive.” I went to talk to her and “nada.” It was like talking to a stone wall. She said that “Mexicans were charming—they have this beautiful charming passivity, so why do I want to take this away and force them to be competitive?” But I said, “Hola.” This lady was beyond repair. I also said, “Why can't we get these kids into the student council?” The school administrators said, “Well, most of them wouldn't be qualified to be in this anyway.” I said, “Wait a minute!” I first got to Belmont because there were only two other Mexican teachers and they needed somebody that could speak Spanish in the attendance office. They needed someone that could speak Spanish in the Vice Principal’s Office and in the counseling office. There were three periods I translated for the teachers. The rest of the time I was in the Social Studies Department teaching history and government. I got to see firsthand what was happening in the school—the attitude, the way the school dealt with the chavalitos. My suspicions were right as far as their harmful treatment of Mexicans.

One day a teacher caught me in the office and said, “Mr. Castro, you're overly concerned for the Mexican kids. They are really succeeding. Some are succeeding tremendously. We have a kid that is head of the R.O.T.C.—he’s captain of the R.O.T.C. He is headed for West Point. The kid’s last name is Chavez.” The minute she said Chavez, I interrupted, "Whoa, Mrs. Lord—her name was Iona Lord—how long have you been a teacher at this school?” “Seven years,” she responded. “Don't you know the difference between a Filipino kid and a Mexican kid?” I asked. She had thought “The kid has a Spanish surname—he’s got to be Mexican.” I knew something different had to happen at that school.

The first thing I did was talk to the kids about running for student council—if nothing else, to make a dent in the school council. So we held meetings. I used to invite the students to the playground I worked at after school because it wasn’t far from Belmont. I worked at the playground from 3 PM, after school, to 9 PM because I needed to supplement my pay. So we had our meetings. We even developed a Chicano political party in 1963. The reason I moved that way is because as a government teacher, I could teach the kids a lot as far as how the American political system worked. Besides in 1958 I helped in the election campaign of Governor Pat Brown in California. Later on in when John F. Kennedy was running for President, I worked with the Democratic Party. I became the Southern California Chairman of Students for Kennedy in 1960. I knew I could do this work and the kids could learn something.

We had a constitutional political party convention at the playground one night and the kids formed this political party. They got candidates to run for the student council. There were certain requirements that had to be fulfilled to run. If you're going to run for council president you had to have been in the student council previously. Many kids couldn't hack it because they hadn't been in the student council to run for president. You couldn’t just walk in and run for president. We couldn’t find a boy who was capable of that, so we ran a girl in 1960. I had a couple of teachers help me out to raise a little money so that the students could get cardboard badges with their names printed on it. They looked real good. Kids were hip to what was going on.

At Belmont, some students were called “F.S.”—Foreign Students. There were 500 of them. Most of them were Spanish-speaking. I told them, “You know what? I want you to imitate John Kennedy.” I said this because when John Kennedy spoke at Olvera Street in downtown LA, he said a few words in Spanish—actually, he only said one word. I'll tell you what happened: In October of 1960 Kennedy was campaigning. Like I said, I was one of his chairmen. He went to the oldest house in the city. Governor Brown and all of the big guys were inside a room because when he came in everybody went crazy at Olvera Street. They went in and started eating lunch. Well, the kids started yelling for them to come out and say a few words, but Kennedy wouldn't come out. So I went in and said, “Hey, somebody open the door. Hey, get him out here. We’re going to have a riot out here.” But he still wouldn't come out and the people started shaking the house so he would come out. Eventually Kennedy came out and stood out on the balcony. I don't know how many thousands of people were out there, but he says “beaver.” He meant to say “Viva.”

At Belmont High School, we later had an assembly for the students. However, many of the kids spoke Spanish. But it was unconstitutional at Belmont in 1963 to speak a foreign language on the stage. If you spoke a foreign language for a play or something like that you got suspended. I didn't know that. It was ridiculous, but that’s the way it was. So as soon as these kids started speaking Spanish they cancelled the assembly. Then everybody left to start the proceedings of suspending the kids. When I heard about this I went to the principal's office because I hadn’t seen this happen before. By then, the administration was trying to find out from the kids who had told them it was okay to speak Spanish at the assembly. “I'm the one who told them to speak Spanish,” I said. “Besides, your rule is stupid. It's unconstitutional and you can't do that.” Then they threw me out. The next day I found myself at Lincoln High School in East LA because I didn't have any tenure. They could move me any time they wanted. They did this about three weeks before the semester was over. They kicked me out from Belmont and I found myself at Lincoln in 1964. At Lincoln there were more Mexicans than in Belmont. Things were as bad and maybe even worse at Lincoln. I said, “Hijola. Está feo.”

Right away I talked to the kids and found out what was going on. They used to have a program there to raise money for the student body. They would have classes in the morning and about once or twice a month, kids would pay 25 cents to go to the auditorium and watch a movie. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Kids have to go to class to get good grades and maybe go to college or something.” In essence, however, these students paid 25 cents to stay out of class. That was one of the problems. And the attitude of the teachers was probably a little worse than of the teachers at Belmont. They had a lack of respect and the lack of concern for the kids. Lincoln had a strong wood shop department, a strong auto shop department, and a very strong secretarial science department. But as far as academics and honors and so forth for Mexican kids, the doors were closed.

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

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