In 1968, close to 20,000 public school students in East Los Angeles staged an organized weeklong walkout, or “blowout” of five schools in the district.

These students protested discrimination and unequal educational standards in their schools. A conference held in the McCune Conference Room of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building yesterday commemorated the 40th anniversary of these walkouts, with appearances from several activists, including Sal Castro, the former teacher at Lincoln High School who organized the blowouts. Over 100 people attended the event.

The walkouts were part of the urban Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s, according to Mario T. García, a professor of Chicano and American race and ethnicity in the History Dept. García organized the conference and gave the keynote address.

During his speech, Castro talked about his continuing work in improving Chicano life. He said that after watching the Super Bowl, he wrote a letter to Fox Sports about the lack of Chicano representation within the group of football players who read excerpts of the Declaration of Independence at the event. Castro said that Chicanos were just as American as the other football players, and that Fox should accurately depict the diversity of the U.S. The network sent him an apology letter.

He also said that he met with President Bill Clinton after the president saw a PBS documentary called “Chicano!” in 1996 and then invited him to the White House to discuss the under-representation of Chicanos.

“It was a hell of an experience going to the White House,” Castro said. “Clinton had a big smile on his face – I didn’t see Monica Lewinski around, though. I told the president, we [Chicanos] are in a crisis in our community. We lead the nation in high school dropouts. We lead the nation in college dropouts. We also have the dubious distinction of leading the nation in teen pregnancies. … [Clinton] looked over at the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and said, ‘We have to do something about this.'”

García said that these blowouts and the resulting Chicano urban movement would never have occurred without Sal Castro’s work.

“Very few of us get the opportunity to make history, but Sal Castro made history,” García said. “There is no question that the walkouts would have not occurred without his leadership, his dedication, his commitment and his inspiration to his students.”

After the blowouts, Castro, along with 12 students, was arrested for his part in the walkouts on felony charges of conspiracy to disrupt the schools. The East Los Angeles school board removed him as a teacher on account of the felony charges, but he was eventually reinstated due to student and community protest.

Activist Henry Gutierrez, who was a sophomore at Occidental college in 1968 and had attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles – one of the five schools where students walked out – spoke yesterday about a sit-in he participated in to get Sal Castro reinstated as a teacher.

“Every day we were picketing in front of Lincoln High School to bring Sal Castro back,” Gutierrez said. “We slept and ate in the school board room for eleven days until they brought him back.”

Mita Cuaron, who also attended Garfield High and participated in the blowouts, said yesterday that she is frustrated that not enough change was made in mostly Chicano school districts over the past 40 years.

“The struggle continues because the conditions today have worsened,” Cuaron said. “What we did was for future generations, yet the struggle continues.”

However, Castro said the ’68 blowouts accomplished positive change for Chicanos today.

“Did we make a difference 40 years back?” Castro said. “Hell yes, we did. All you need to do is look at the California state legislature and you see a hell of a lot of brown faces.”