Be Down With The Brown Print

For ten days that shook Los Angeles, in March 1968, Chicano and Chicana high school students walked out of class to protest a racist educational system. The "blow-outs" began with several thousand students from six barrio schools, then increased every day until over 10,000 had struck. Shouting "Chicano Power" and "Viva la revolucion!," they brought the city's school system--largest in the U.S.--to a total halt. As scholar-activist Carlos Munoz, Jr., wrote in his book Youth, Identity, Power, "the strike was the first major mass protest explicitly against racism undertaken by Mexican Americans in the history of the United States."

The blowouts sparked other protests including the first action ever by Chicano university students, at San Jose State College, and Chicano participation in the long, militant Third World student strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. All this took place at a time of youth rebellion nationwide and worldwide. Raza students stood out in the U.S. because the great majority came from the working-class and their central goal was affirmation of their culture's values and history rather than a humanistic counter-culture.

Today Raza youth are repeating that history with new blowouts--but also with notable advances over the 1960s movimiento in terms of sexism, homophobia, and chingon-style leadership (strongman being a polite translation of that word). The level of organization already established by the youth says: they are in it for the long haul.

It's All About Respect

Since the spring of 1993, Raza high school students from Colorado to Los Angeles have walked for such demands as more Latino teachers and counselors; Ethnic Studies (not only Latino but also African American, Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander); bilingual education that is sensitive to students' cultural needs; and Latino student retention programs. In California other issues have often been added: repressive new anti-crime laws; preventing the re-election of right-wing Gov. Pete Wilson; and above all fighting Proposition 187 with its brutal call to deny educational and health services to anyone, including children, merely suspected of being undocumented. (On the November ballot, Prop. 187 seems likely to pass at this writing.)

California's blowouts focused on northern schools first, then spread south rapidly. The students, mostly of Mexican or Salvadoran background, came from high school, junior high and sometimes elementary school. Why a blowout, not just a march or rally? Because California's public schools lose $17.20 or more for each unexcused absence per day: that reality provided the economic centerpiece of the students' strategy.

The first wave seemed to burst from nowhere when, on April 1, 1993, over 1,000 mostly Latino junior high and high school students walked out of a dozen Oakland schools and confronted school officials. On September 16, celebrated as Mexican Independence Day, over 4,000 blew out in Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Gilroy, and San Francisco. Arrests and violence were rare; the students worked to avoid them. But in Gilroy 19-year old Rebecca Armendariz was prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, apparently because she signed to rent a bus that students used. In right-wing-dominated Orange County, 300 students clashed with police while some were beaten and pepper-sprayed as police stood by.

Another wave of student strikes unrolled in November and December. At Exeter, a small town in California's generally conservative Central Valley, 500 high school students boycotted classes when a teacher told an embarrassed youth who had declined to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in English: "if you don't want to do it, go back to Mexico." It was the kind of remark that had been heard too many times in this school where 40 percent of the 1,200 students are Latino but only 6 of its 59 teachers.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, 300 Latino and other students blew out for the usual educational reasons and also for being automatically stereotyped as gangbangers if they wore certain kinds of clothing. The School Board agreed to their main demand for Latino studies and offered a class--to be held before and after the regular school day. The basic message: this class isn't for real.

On February 2, 1994, the anniversary of the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which made half of Mexico part of the U.S., over 1,000 high school students and supporters from various districts shook up the state capitol. "The governor wants more prisons, we want schools. He wants more cops, we want more teachers. We want an education that values and includes our culture. We want all cultures to know about themselves," one said, as reported by the Sacramento paper Because People Matter.

For Cesar Chavez's birthday nearly 400 Latino students from 4 city schools marched on district offices in Richmond. On April 18 half of the elementary school pupils in the town of Pittsburg boycotted classes with some parental support, because a Spanish-speaking principal had been demoted. They had their tradition: 20 years before, Pittsburg elementary school students had boycotted for lack of a Latino principal.

The spring wave climaxed on April 22 with a coordinated blow-out involving over 30 schools in northern California. Some 800 youth gathered in San Francisco under signs like "Educate, Don't Incarcerate" and "Our Story Not His-story," with brightly painted banners of Zapata and armed women of the Mexican Revolution. Calls for unity across racial/national lines and against gang warfare rang out all day. "Don't let the lies of the United Snakes divide us!" "Latin America doesn't stop with Mexico," said a Peruvian. Another shouted "It's not just about Latinos or Blacks or Asians, this is about the whole world!" Some of the loudest cheers came from a 16-year-old woman who cried "We've got to forget these colors!"

In the town of Hayward, where 1,200 high school and junior high students boycotted over 20 schools in 9 cities, they took a historic step against gang warfare. Some 300 demonstrators turned in their red or blue gang rags for brown bandannas--brown for Brown Power and unity. Later some of them set up a meeting to help stop the violence. "You wear the brown rag, be down. Be all the way down for every Raza," said Monica Manriquez, age 17.

Cinco de Mayo brought more blow-outs and then a June gathering in Los Angeles of 900 high school students--the first ever. Observers were amazed and the students themselves startled by their own success. Sergio Arroyo, 16, of Daly City, spoke for many: "People didn't think it could happen, all that unity, but it did." Lucrecia Montez from Hayward High said "We're making history. Yeah, we're making history."

Why Now?

The current generation of Latino teenagers had seen little in their lifetime except the intensified reaction and racism established under Presidents Reagan and Bush, unchanged under Clinton. Attempts at multiculturalism, bilingualism and affirmative action had been ferociously attacked by those staunch defenders of eurocentrism and other bastions of White Supremacy. A prolonged recession had further eroded young hopes for a decent life. At the same time Raza today is identified as the cause of those economic problems by the current gang-baiting and immigrant-bashing campaigns.

Nationwide, Latinos have the lowest high school graduation rate of any population group. For every 100 Latinos who enter kindergarten, only 55 graduate from high school. Of those 55, just 25 enter college. Of those 25, 7 finish. Of the shining seven, four go on to graduate school--and two finish. Those figures came from a 1985 study and the count today is even worse: only 16 percent of all Latinos were in college in 1989, over half of them in 2-year colleges. In many areas 50 percent continues to be a common high school dropout (pushout) rate. Along with the poverty that makes so many quit school for work, how can Raza feel encouraged to continue at schools like Jefferson High in Daly City, which has a 47 percent Latino student body but no Latino studies and only two Latino teachers, or Christian Brothers High in Sacramento where a teacher called a student "dumb Mexican" to his face.

Small wonder then that Raza teenagers share the alienation if not despair of young people around them. African American youth influence them culturally and thereby politically, rapping a common rage; the process works both ways. Latino student activism has thus grown in a nationwide climate of youthful anger, especially among those of color. In Los Angeles racially mixed youth marched against the state's new Three Strikes You're Out "anti-crime law." Last May 18, 55 multinational students were arrested at Soledad Prison in northern California for protesting the construction of another prison there. New cultural and activist programs for youth of color have sprung up like multi-national Education for Liberation in San Francisco.

Other regional and national developments also sparked the Latino blowouts. In 1992 the anti-Quincentennial celebrations of indigenous people encouraged a rapidly growing indigenismo that tells Latinos: you too descend from the native folk of these Americas and share their cultures, their spirituality. Here is a source of pride and identity for youth, to accompany righteous anger. The amazing January 1, 1994 indigenous uprising led by the Zapatistas in Chiapas further strengthened indigenismo and Raza pride. By April 22, 1994 it seemed that the spirit of Mexican revolutionary hero Zapata had marched straight from the mountains of Chiapas to Dolores Park, San Francisco.

The death of Cesar Chavez in 1993 added to the students' self-respect. Known to few teenagers until last year, Cesar and the farmworkers became an inspiration almost overnight. His birthday and the day of his death, both in the spring, provide occasions for major protests. Juanita Chavez of San Francisco, the 22-year-old niece of Cesar Chavez and daughter of Dolores Huerta, has been a leading activist with much influence on teenagers.

Finally, to answer the question "why now?" high school students had an immediate example to follow: their slightly older sisters and brothers in college. In April 1993 a Latino occupation of the Chancellor's office at UC Berkeley protested a policy that would subvert Ethnic Studies. In May-June a strong, community-supported hunger strike by Latino students won department status for Chicano Studies at UCLA. This year four Chicanas at Stanford University held a hunger strike in May to protest the outrageous, without-notice firing of Chicana associate dean Cecilia Burciaga after 20 years of service, supposedly for budgetary reasons. Michigan State University, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Harvard, Cornell, and the University of New Mexico have seen Latino student action on issues ranging from racist advertising by the campus radio station to the removal of racist murals glorifying the Great White Fathers and respect for murals celebrating Chicano/Mexicano history (at UNM this struggle goes back almost 25 years).

Little wonder, then, that the hour of Raza high school students had come.

How Did They Do It?

As usual the media have hounded everyone with their favorite question: "who organized all this?" One thing is clear: the blowout youth may have received information, ideas, contacts, resources, tips on security, or other important help from college students and experienced organizers, but in the end they did it themselves. Rebecca Armendariz from Gilroy told me, "We organized the rally so that no adults would run it. The kids just jumped on the stage."

No single group organized and coordinated all the blowouts. At some schools certain existing structures helped pave the way. Especially in the Sacramento area, the 25-year old national Chicano student organization MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) played that role. At most schools it would be the local Raza club. There were also special situations that brought hundreds of high school students together from near and far, like Raza Day at UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, which is officially for recruitment but has obvious organizing potential. Several stuedents told me that day woke them up to the need for Chicano Studies.

Members of a new group, Fund Our Youth, helped organize at many schools. It was initiated by young adults including Gabriel Hernandez and Adriana Montes of the Chicago Moratorium Coalition. (Adriana is a pharmacy technician who has done much to help the young women. Her husband, Gabriel, is a union organizer in Oakland.) Gabriel says, "it's pretty loose. We would go into schools at the request of the local Raza club or other students, and bring them together for workshops on issues like identity. We would work with them breaking down the problems at their particular school, then talk about what to do. The students are really looking for someone who will listen to them. Once they hear, see and feel this concern, their dignity and power are unleashed."

Then students would set up their committees like outreach and publicity, and have 20-80 people coming to every general meeting. After their walkout they would get together to decide what next, and to develop a Student Empowerment Program (StEP) for their area with ongoing committees to do outreach, education, structure development, etc. Regional coordination came from a small number of hard-traveling UC- Berkeley students like Rosalia Gonzalez, Hernan Maldonado, and Benecio Silva; Gabriel Hernandez also did some of this work.

For the vast majority of students the walkout would be their first demonstration ever. It wasn't easy to organize. A Sacramento student spoke of tensions when they first started organizing, like one group wanting to run the show or distrust of college students. Or other problems, as described by 17-year old Monica Manriquez of San Leandro High: "The guys in my high school are really still in junior high, they don't take things seriously. They are wannabe gangsters. I've been called a sellout for organizing. If you're Mexican and not a gangster, you've sold out. At first I wondered what I was doing wrong, but I kind of understand. They are afraid to pick up a book, they'll let down their friends. Everybody wants to fit in."

A few important pockets of experience did exist. Ixtlixochitl (Obsidian Flower) Soto from Yuba City, age 18, is the daughter of a Chicano Studies instructor; she became president of MEChA and helped organize walkouts. Rebecca Armendariz's family goes back five generations in the Gilroy area; her father is a socialist who organized prison inmates. "He taught me how to organize," and she pulled together a small walkout against the Gulf War. At Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, Kahlil Jacobs-Fantuzzi--half-Puerto Rican, half-Jewish--was elected class president on a political platform and organized many multi-cultural activities with another student ("not just food--history.").

Another example is Elsa Quiroga of Hayward who dates her activism back to 8th grade when all but one of the Latino counselors were removed. She and three other students made a video about the need for counselors. "We showed it to the School Board," Elsa told me, "and they said they would keep the counselors. The newspapers said `Students Save Counselors'. But it wasn't done." Since then Elsa (now 16) has attended various leadership conferences; worked on a summer youth program; served as a peer counselor; and become president of the La Raza club at school. "That club used to be just social"--a common problem--"but it should be more about issues." She even researched and taught a class on the Aztecs because her regular history course included nothing.

For the April 22 blowout, Elsa did two months of organizing, set up committees, made flyers, worked on outreach. "The principal called me in and asked if I knew anything about what was happening. I explained and he said `a walkout is stupid.' Other teachers said the same. When the day came, the police were ready for violence at first but then they said `you're very organized.' We're just taking baby steps now, toward bigger steps later."

Another key to walkout success: students organizing a blowout never announced the actual date and time until the last minute, so nobody could do anything to stop it. As a result, they took school officials by surprise and avoided cooptive moves, possible threats, or subversion through parents' concern. (For example, according to UC Davis student Marlene Molina, one counselor told parents that they had more chance of being deported if their children got involved with MEChA.)

Taking time to talk with parents about their worries also strengthened the walkouts, especially since so many protesters were young women. "We had a workshop for parents and explained that we aim to give back to the community." Marlene Molina told me. Gabriel Hernandez described how he and others had gone to visit Elsa Quiroga's Mexican parents, whom she described as strict and concerned about her, their youngest. Finally they agreed she could go on a two-day Cesar Chavez march and later to a conference in Arizona. "Okay, but no slumber parties," they said.

It Ain't the 1960s

Today's Raza youth movement of northern California is breaking the patriarchal 1960s movimiento mold in several important ways. I first saw this when speaking to about 1,000 high school students on the UC Berkeley campus for Raza Day last year. During what I thought would be my not-too-popular talk about Chicana feminism, I off-handedly said "Viva la mujer." The audience, quiet until then, gave those words a thunderous ovation.

At the April 22 rallies in San Francisco, the majority of the speakers were female: a sight never seen in the 1960s. Out of 15 people suggested as key organizers for me to interview, all but three were female. In Sacramento, security--long a super-macho domain--was female. No single over-arching organization has yet been formed from the walkouts but many groups observe a 50-50 rule: not only leadership but also committee membership should be half girl, half boy. So each committee in the East Bay area, for example, has two coordinators: one female and one male. MEChA, which voted down a Chicana caucus a few years ago at a California meeting, now requires a Chicana caucus in each chapter and chapters are often headed by young women.

Yet you hear about varied personal experiences. Maria Ines Carrasco, age 13, said "there's no respect. We get called `ho' if we have sex but for a boy, it makes him a man." Another 13-year old, Maribel Sainez, put her finger on what might make a difference in male behavior: "On a regular day they sometimes don't show respect, they curse us and rule us. But we curse them back. In this protest we do not feel put down." Leticia Bustos, age 14, believed "Boys have not put down girls for being leaders." Her friends had been inspired by talking with participants in Mission Girls, a San Francisco program noted for its progressive mentors and activities.

Monica Manriquez also thought the walkouts changed young male attitudes. "At first they said about me, `what does she know--a girl?' They wouldn't help me bring in a speaker. But when they saw I was serious, they changed." As back-up, Monica belongs to a young women's club in town, Latinas y Que?--Latinas and So? UC Davis student Marlene Molina brought good news: "We had very successful skits in MEChA on what to do about sexual harassment and abusive boyfriends. In Bakersfield the guys are creating their own caucus, to talk about how the men are messing up. There are few men like that!"

The problem of homophobia has hardly been eliminated but at least it is addressed and sometimes publicly criticized. Straight Latino students will tell you they have a responsibility to defend gay people against gay-bashing, with their lives if necessary, as they would any community under attack. As late as 1982, MEChA was openly anti-gay; today many chapters have moved away from such positions. At least one respected youth leader is openly bisexual ("no big deal") which would have been impossible in the 60s.

This embrace of "difference" which can be found among the walkout youth has roots, I think, in the spiritual force of indigenismo with its sense of linkage and inter-dependence among all living creatures. One student commented to me, "There is a lot more spirituality in our movement than in the 1960s."

Among the walkout Latinos, gone are the days when the ideal was a cacique type of leader with a tough style, preferably charismatic, and overshadowing all others. These youth avoid projecting individual leaders and still have no officers beyond the local school organizations. Some groups have a rule that no one can speak a second time at a meeting until all others have spoken. None of this means they have no rules. "No work, no talk" is one of them. But they decide by consensus, not by voting (MEChA does vote). And they don't go for what the inimitable Charlie of Berkeley described as the chilling effect of "John's Rules of Order--or who? Robert's? Anyway, they told me at that meeting that I was out of order so I fell asleep."

Some of this suggests an idealism that may face problems with growing numbers, pressure for more formalized structure, political differences, and the need for leadership training to guard against dependency on some experienced individual. There are already other contradictions to be faced and resolved. One is the Raza student relationship to African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Societal conflicts between Latinos and Blacks happen at many schools. "They try to punk us but we punk them back," commented Maribel Sainez, who want on to say "but when we walked out about 20 Black students walked out in support." They have come together politically--to demand Ethnic Studies and to oppose the growing neo-Nazism and repressive new laws. No matter how difficult, unity remains the dream of many Raza walkout youth. "I want to see everyone together, all of the colors and races," Leticia Bustos told me. "I want other races to run the government, like a Black president." Anglos are also included when the students talk about who has helped them and who should be supported in return.

Building the Future

Over the summer of 1994 and into the fall, high school students from Los Angeles to Denver have gathered regionally or locally to plan for the future. A northern California rural retreat was attended by 70 youth. They discussed what they had done and how, and made plans for the coming year, all while living together peacefully in tents for four days.

Students in different towns of the greater Bay Area meet every week on different days. All have a structure that includes five committees: outreach, campaigns and events, policy, education (external and internal), and barrio warfare. Eventually the committee heads will probably form a general coordinating body. Immediate plans include (1) door-to-door campaigns and voter registration with emphasis on the anti-immigrant propositions and other bad laws; (2) School Board races.

Organizing speeds ahead in southern California and the Valley, from San Luis Obispo to Bakersfield. At times students cite the Plan de Santa Barbara, from the 1968 blow-outs era, which called for the institutionalization of Chicano Studies and student organizing. In this profoundly ahistorical society, young people can remember history when they want to--and make history, too.