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.
First, let me ask you some questions about your family—are
you married or...?
No, I've been divorced for many years.
How many kids do you have?
Two boys and two grandsons.
How did your activities impact your family?
Well, it may have caused the divorce in part because I was
always gone to meetings and organizing.
Who were your role models when you were growing up?
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.
I've heard you mention how at certain times in your life
you went to school in Mexico.
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,
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.
Where did you go to college?
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.
Why did you become a teacher?
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
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.
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
When did you begin your career as a high school teacher?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
of Part I
Read Part II
III will be continued in the next issue of Xispas.com