Mexican-American Civil Rights Activist Salvador Castro Dies

The fervent education reformer died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 79. Salvador Castro was revered as a teacher and mentor and for being one of the central figures in the 1968 walkouts. These were protests by Mexican-American students that helped spark what would soon become known as the Chicano Movement.

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Salvador Castro was a Mexican American civil rights activist and fervent education reformer. He died on Monday in Los Angeles at 79 years old. Castro was revered as a teacher and mentor, and for being one of the central figures in what would come to be known as the 1968 Walkouts. These were protests by Mexican-American students that helped spark what would soon become known as the Chicano movement.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Nineteen-sixty-eight was a turbulent year. There were black power demonstrations and anti-war protests in the streets and on college campuses. So in a way, it was natural that Mexican-American high school students in East Los Angeles became activists, too. After years of receiving an indifferent education that made no mention of their cultural history from educators that punished them for speaking their grandparents' language, they'd had enough.

And aided by the guidance of Sal Castro, a respected social studies teacher at Lincoln High School, the students in five high schools decided to walk out en masse to protest those conditions. In the 1996 documentary "Chicano!" Castro recalls what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHICANO")

SAL CASTRO: In the morning, as I walked in the school - as the bell rang for the kids to go to school, heading for their classroom - out they went. Kids from all over, different hallways and everything else, they were out in the streets with their heads held high, with dignity. It was beautiful to be a Chicano that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

BATES: Thousands of students were involved. But when the walkouts were over, important things had changed: Mexican-American history began to be taught. Smart students got college counseling instead of being automatically steered toward menial jobs. Speaking Spanish was no longer a punishable offense.

MONICA GARCIA: I think that's when Sal Castro first distinguished himself as a teacher and a counselor, in that he stood with the students who were making these demands of the school district.

BATES: Monica Garcia is president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board.

GARCIA: He did put himself on the line. And he supported the belief that things could be better.

BATES: But, Garcia says, Castro paid a personal price for that. After the walkouts, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to disrupt the schools and disturb the peace. He fought the charges and eventually they were dropped, but he lost his job for awhile before angry parents demanded he be reinstated.

Carlos Moreno says Sal Castro was a mentor. Castro encouraged him and other Chicano students to demand equality.

CARLOS MORENO: He really emphasized our own self-worth and that we were entitled to the same facilities and so forth, that the wealthy communities had.

BATES: Today, thanks in part from absorbing that lesson, Carlos Moreno is an alumnus of Yale and Stanford and a retired justice of the California Supreme Court.

Sal Castro's efforts didn't stop at the classroom. He established the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference at a camp in Malibu, where many Chicano students, for the first time, experienced their culture beyond painful stereotypes. The leadership skills they acquired there sent many into public service - like Justice Moreno, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and many now in state and local politics.

Their service honors him. And so does something else. In 2009, a new school opened on a downtown L.A. campus. Its name: Sal Castro Middle School.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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