The Chicano Movement, Schools, and the Mayday Marches

Film Review

by Rich Gibson

May 2006

A new film likely to be shown on HBO is circulating in California universities. Walkout claims to be the story of the late sixties school walkouts in LA, led by mostly Mexican youth activists. Coming along with the movie is the "real guy" who is portrayed as the teacher-activist who helped start the walkouts, Mr Sal Castro, who says he taught in the LA schools for 38 years, following his 60's outburst.

The strength of the movie, which should be underlined, is the clear portrayal of youth and others who courageously took direct action, massive walkouts from LA high schools, at great risk, in order to fight oppressive, racist, school conditions. Their walkouts, according to the film, mixed leadership with spontaneity, planning with critical analyses of conditions--and risky action-and swept across five LA high schools.

The youth made demands ranging from bi-lingual education and a halt to bans on speaking Spanish in schools, to involuntary transfers of racist teachers, to an end of paddling, unlocked rest rooms, and a halt to custodial work as a form of punishment. Initially, they made their demands to principals, who rejected them out of hand, urging caution on the part of youth who would "ruin your career," if they persisted. The kids pressed on, taking their demands to the school board which maneuvered for time, perhaps expecting the issues would die out as students graduated.

So, in evening meetings with Castro's leadership, the kids made a plan, collectively. Some first suggested a boycott, but following more discussion they chose a walkout---a better demonstration of organization and militancy, raising the ante.

The plan was for all schools to walk out on the same day, but one school jumped the gun, walking out early, spontaneously. That put pressure on the remaining schools to follow suit, quickly, and they did. Day one of the full walkouts went fairly smoothly, but when day two came, with walkouts planned at only a few target schools, the LA police department attacked. They locked down the schools and brutally beat those who sought to leave. Even so, masses of kids walked out, once again.

Following the police attack, 13 youth, and Castro, were arrested on felony charges---conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor by disrupting a school. The charges were dropped, years later.

However, masses of protesting students were joined by parents and community people, forging a powerful alliance in community-wide demonstrations portrayed in the film.

In the interim, the California University System opened its doors to Chicano youth after the walkouts, and especially, according to Castro, Chicano activists, many of them his friends.

The overarching idea of masses of students, parents, community people, and a few teachers taking collective action is, again, the motor-power of the film and should be an interesting starting point to serious discussions about school in capitalist societies, about the myths of US schooling (education will move you up, democracy wants truly educated people, school in the US is diverse today, etc). And, above all, what to do--and how.

However, the film is, at the same time, an instrument designed to turn people into vehicles of their own oppression. The key problem in the film, and most certainly with Sal Castro's quirky comments following the film, is Chicano nationalism which quickly becomes a form of racism.

'Chicano Power' -- Chicano nationalism -- undermines the film. It doesn't strengthen it. Chicano nationalism is the argument that Hispanic people have to be self-sufficient and "reclaim what is rightfully theirs." Like black nationalism, Irish nationalism, and all other such nationalisms, this view is a limited one, because it refuses to see that other working-class people of other ethnicities fundamentally have most of the same problems, issues, and suffering as Chicano workers and youth do. Culture is important, but "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" is always dangerous.

For example, in both the film and discussions, Castro uses the term "Mexican blood" to refer to Mexican heritage. But the problem with "bloodlines" of any kind is that 1) they are false; all humans come from the same basic ancestry, and culture, though somewhat different from place to place, is also not "in the blood" (people everywhere have mostly similar experiences which is why languages are so easily translated); and 2) "bloodlines" are racist, because whether they mean to or not, they exclude other oppressed groups that do not share that group's "blood."

White racists like the Neo-Nazis and the KKK also use "bloodline" to explain their views. "Mexican blood" parallels the myth of "white blood," or "Aryan blood," implying that not only thinking, but human worth, is genetic--a lie that leads to death camps: if someone's "bloodline," is not up to snuff, then not only are they likely to be something less than human, they are a threat to the entire gene bank, the line that Hitler's killer-geneticists followed.

It's safe to assume, of course, that Castro and others who propagate an ethnic-nationalist view like Chicano Power want to help destroy racism, not build it-- for example, Castro rightly points out that Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, black, and many other histories have been omitted from textbooks until recently, and that even now, most of what should be included still isn't. Unintentionally, though, ethnic nationalism like Chicano Power and similar self-sufficiency arguments actually builds racism, because these theories prevent international working-class unity across racial and cultural lines.

The idea that only multi-racial unity of the poor and working classes will defeat racism and capitalism remains a relatively unpopular idea in this country and many others. Race-based communities would rather think they can handle things on their own. But they can't; no one can. We need to not just work together, but wisely bond together as a class, as a militant multi-racial working class, under our common cause as workers -- suffering under capitalism and our need to be liberated from that system with a worker-run, collectively based society.

Castro uses the issue of omitted histories from textbooks to argue that things would be vastly improved if there were more Chicano people in positions of authority. While he is correct in saying that many of the deliberate omissions in social studies and other textbooks obliterate black, brown, Asian, Indian, people, it is also true that the textbooks eliminate women, and, at least as significantly, the history of work, labor and class struggles. In California, it is illegal to teach the positive things that communists helped win in the U.S, like unionism, the social security laws, rights to collective bargaining, and child labor laws.

But Castro merely insists that things would be fine if more Chicano people were in positions of authority, if more teachers took diversity classes, if more Chicano people served on school boards, got advanced degrees, if "La Raza," ruled, etc. Moreover, he points with pride at the "Mexican blood" of US soldiers who died in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, never noting that these were imperialist adventures in which working class soldiers had no interest, nothing to gain, nor noting that soldiers of color were absolutely key in leading the movements to resist those wars, leading mutinies.

Castro's Chicano nationalism does not prevent him from hoisting Old Glory, praising "our United States," as if everyone had a share in a government that stands fully exposed as a weapon of the rich.

Castro attacks those who want to link change in school with change in society. In a recent showing of the film, he followed a bizarre pattern of calling those who speak well of the 2006 Mayday school walkouts today (modeled in form after the walkouts he helped generate almost 40 years ago) "racist" and "religious fundamentalists." Others have noted that Castro is a self-building crank, a comment with considerable merit.

Castro, always addressing only the Chicanos in his audience, as if the black, white, other Latin, and Asian members have no role, urges young people to forestall struggles, to get MA's, PhD's, and make change from the top down.

At the same time, though, Castro stumbles over his own rhetoric. Many of his friends who were involved in the Walkout struggles, including former LA school board members, prominent professors, the Mayor of Los Angeles, directors of Chicano studies departments in colleges of education, already hold those top jobs, and he agrees things "have only gotten worse, schools are worse now than then." It is, in brief, commonplace for the powerful to try to use a few children of the poor to win the loyalty of all the poor.

To expand, the governments and militaries of most of Latin America and Central America are led by Hispanic, Latin, and Chicano men (sexism persists), yet they are every bit as oppressive as governments elsewhere--protecting wealth and property, using the whole works of government to keep poor and working people in line.

Coupled with his muddled sense of racism, Castro is also tactically all over the place. He denounces 90 percent of the teaching force as ignorant, insensitive and racist (which, though numerically exaggerated, has a little truth to it---90 percent of the teaching force, and more, is white, coming mostly from the middle class), yet he expects those same teachers, in meetings with school board members, parents, and elected leaders, to transform inequitable schooling.

It is largely true that most teachers (and most assuredly their national union leaders) are reactionaries, or at least passive missionaries for capitalism. Racism, opportunism, ignorance, and cowardice are key trends in the school workers' force. And, sad to say, there is no history to suggest that most teachers will be otherwise for some time to come. In a period that can best be described as "emerging fascism," a look back at earlier fascist regimes, as in Nazi Germany, shows that the overwhelming majority of teachers were early voluntary Nazis. As in Germany, though, these reactionary teachers will, over time, prove themselves to be of no account.

With schools now the centripetal organizing point of North American life, some educators can reasonably be projected to be seen as key agents of social change, rescuing education from the goals of the rich, making the purpose of education not merely class consciousness, but the purposeful solidarity of humanity--in opposition to the segregated pre-cannon-fodder work that typifies a lot of schooling in the US. Those teachers who can understand their task is to help others to understand and transform the world, who know why things are as they are, and have plan for educational and social change, will matter.

Both the film and Castro miss the historical context of struggles against racism, inequality, and oppression. In the film, only a marginal effort is made to locate the late sixties school walkouts within the economic and social crises of the times; urban uprisings, the massive anti-war movement, and above all the heroic fight of the Vietnamese people led by Ho Chi Minh and others, many of them real educators--few of whom had advanced degrees. There is none of this background in the film, making the struggle in LA schools seem simply out of place, an aberration.

Neither the film, not Castro, is willing to say, "this is capitalism, these are capitalist schools, and a capitalist government, and capitalism today has no real hope to offer youth, only perpetual war, meaningless jobs, and deepened inequality, more segregation----and if we want change we need to aim high, at getting rid of capitalism itself."

Because Castro is unwilling to recognize that the real division in society is social class, that the real "race" is worker, he serves as a prop for the requirements of those who must divide and rule, in order to profit.

He is unable to draw from lessons of history, unable to see how the Freedom Schools set up within the US civil rights movement might offer a clue about what to do to make a school walkout more than a spectacular action.

Nor does Castro grasp the potential significance of the massive Mayday 2006 marches which he says lacked the depth and power of the sixties efforts, "just the result of lots of cell phones."

In a period when many educators and activists felt we were at a low ebb of education and activism, the people marching on Mayday showed that the class struggle and class consciousness are always on, no matter how submerged it may seem. Indeed, many of us may need to rethink our viewpoints, as what has been submerged to us has been daily work life to others.

The Mayday marches involved millions of people. We marched because imperialism and the processes of capital made it necessary to fight back. Imperialism made life impossible in people's homelands, and capitalism made life nearly impossible in the US. Treated worse than commodities, the mass of people marching face more problems at international borders than auto parts.

Despite the infinite problems of the marches, like the concession to US flags, most people in the marches knew that capitalism cannot solve the problems we face. Just as the US cannot win in Iraq, because Iraqis know the US troops are really their to rob them, yet the US cannot leave Iraq because it must have the oil and social control that Iraq represents, so the incessant drive for cheap labor, and to rule through divide and conquer maneuvers, will not be stopped by any of the bills in Congress. US bosses cannot live without cheap labor, and cannot live with the struggles cheap labor produces. Only the long struggle against capital itself, involving direct actions like on Mayday, can address our common crises.

Mayday is recognized in Mexico as an international workers' holiday initiated by anarchists and communists in the US. Most people on the marches knew of the political significance of the Mayday action. People marched as in a wildcat strike, against the directions of their sellout union and church leaders. And hundreds of thousands of marchers were, in fact, involved in what amounted to a massive general strike.

Moreover, the structure of the marches, including people of all ages, all job classifications, all nations, all races, all sexes, offer clues of how organizing for the future could be done---beyond the narrow confines of unionism.

The perplexing problems of how we get from what is, to what should be; from a society that is united via systems of communications, technology, production, and transportation, yet sharply divided by nation, race, and sex/gender-- and at perpetual war---to a world where people can become reasonably free and creative in collective communities--- the gap between one and the other is what we must seek to fill with education and action.

The powerful message of Walkout, take reasoned, direct, massive militant action for social change, may well overpower its, and Mr Castro's, faults.


My sincere thanks to the comrades who reviewed and commented on this review.

This is a link to the uncritical Democracy Now review and commentary on the film http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/03/29/154216&mode=thread&tid=25

PBS produced a documentary that covers the LA school struggles, but the www site for the video is "retired" http://www.pbs.org/chicano/

This is a link to Chicano studies resources on the www http://www.mnstate.edu/library/instruct/chicano.htm

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