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Remembering Sal Castro, Influential L.A. Educator

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Sal Castro (Facebook)
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By Diego RenteríaYesterday, amidst the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings a bit of important local news came to the fore: The death of longtime Los Angeles educator and Chicano activist Sal Castro.

From Castro's Facebook page:

45 years since the Chicano Blowouts, today we've lost a Civil Rights icon and a tremendous source of inspiration for Chicano and Latino students. RIP Sal Castro.

Castro died early Monday morning at his home in Silver Lake, months after being diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer, his wife told the Los Angeles Times.

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Castro, who was born Salvador but went by Sal, was a social studies teacher in different schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was a central figure in the 1968 East L.A. Chicano Blowouts, in which he led students at Abraham Lincoln High School to walk out of their classes to protest a culturally-insensitive educational system that focused resources on predominantly white schools, overcrowded and run-down school campuses, and did not adequately prepare Chicanos for college, instead funneling them towards manual labor. The walkouts quickly spread to other high schools (Woodrow Wilson, Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Belmont, Venice, and Jefferson) and included approximately 15,000 students.

The East L.A. Walkouts proved a seminal point in the nascent Chicano Movement of Los Angeles and the Southwest, inspiring similar actions and cultivating a number of future activists and community leaders, among them Moctesuma Esparza, who produced a 2006 film version of the East L.A. Walkouts.

For his part in the East L.A. Walkouts, Castro was removed from teaching, then reinstated after outcry by supporters and community members. After a few years of being shuffled around the LAUSD, Castro returned to Belmont High School in 1973, where he remained until his retirement in 2004. In his honor, a middle school that opened at the Belmont High School campus was named for Castro.

Castro's reach was widened by his lectures at schools and the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference, which he started in 1963 "in response to the harsh reality that Chicano students fared last in education, their dropout rates exceeded any other ethnicity and the likelihood of their attending a college or university was very low."

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Thousands of students from the L.A. area went to Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu for the CYLC—myself included—and left renewed and inspired. Alumni of the CYLC include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, retired California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, numerous teachers and academics, politicians, journalists, artists, and members of every profession. The CYLC ended in 2009, when it lost its funding.

Castro’s message was easily distilled into the message on the podium in the photo above: “No sean mensos (Don’t be idiots). Go to college and graduate!” I still have his business card from when I attended the CYLC eight years ago. On the back is the stronger version of his message: “No sean pendejos (Don’t be dumbasses). Go to college and graduate!”

Reactions and remembrances to Castro’s death appeared on as news of his death spread. Former students and admirers of Castro posted their memories and messages on Facebook and Twitter. Mayor Villaraigosa issued a statement, calling Castro “a courageous leader during the Los Angeles Chicano civil rights movement. He will always be remembered for his zeal and commitment to improving educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of race. Today, we mourn the loss of a man who helped shape a part of the Los Angeles history.” Councilmember José Huizar described Castro “an education warrior who fought for equal access and opportunity for Latino students.” County Supervisor Gloria Molina compared Castro to Cesar Chavez in her statement:

For Latinos in Los Angeles, Sal Castro was as influential and inspirational as United Farm Workers co-founder César Chávez was nationally - an example of the power of organizing who personified the possibility of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.

Today’s Los Angeles City Council meeting adjourned in honor of Castro and his tireless work for the youth of Los Angeles.

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PBS produced a film on the Chicano student movement for the 1996 Chicano! A History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement series. Watch the full episode, “Taking Back the Schools,” below: