Walkouts – Murray

Danielle Murray

In March of 1968, thousands of students from across East Los Angeles burst through their schools’ doors in the midst of class.

On Nov. 6, two of these former students came to Cerritos College to address their reasons for the walkouts, what happened during the protest, and the lessons that students today can learn from their experience.

Paula Crisostomo, a student activist from the East LA Walkouts, came to Cerritos College to urge students, especially minorities, to continue their education without let-up.

“Education levels the playing field,” she said. “Education is power.”

“Latinos are indefensibly distinguished as the least educated ethnic group in the country,” she said, highlighting the over 60% high school drop-out rate.

However, she assured all in the room, “You have services and people who believe in you.”

The event opened with a preview for the HBO movie “Walkout,” which was based on the experience of Crisostomo.

Through this, the audience saw not only the personal struggles of the students in school and in the family, but also the political climate and social climate which contributed to the friction felt by Crisostomo and her peers.

“We were disgusted by the teachers who had such low expectations of even those of us in the college prep track,” said Crisostomo, who also added that the main result of the walkouts was to shine “a spotlight on the deplorable education we were being exposed to.”

Rather than being encouraged to go to college or pursue a professional career, Crisostomo and her classmates were told that they would make “great auto mechanics” or “good housewives and mothers.”

“We were never given a choice,” she said.

Robert Verdugo, her former classmate and fellow activist, agreed.

He told the audience of a time when a teacher alerted him to the “three strikes” that were working against him: “You’re fat, you’re lazy, and you’re Mexican,” the teacher had said.

Although they were afraid of the short-term outcome of the walkout, Verdugo recalls “We were more scared that if we didn’t do anything, (the maltreatment of Mexican students) would continue.”

Crisostomo, who now serves as director of government and community relations at Occidental College, was instrumental in organizing the walkouts, which have become known as the largest demonstration of high school students in the nation, and the first led by urban chicanos.

Though Verdugo thought that he had “given up” by the time that he was in his senior year and dropped out of high school, he has since attended UCLA and graduated with a degree in social work from CSULA.

He now is proud to be part of a generation “that didn’t give up.”

Crisostomo and Verdugo agree: the struggle for change did not start with them, but they are proud to take part in continuing it, just as they urge students today to do as well.

The event was hosted by Teacher TRAC, Sociedad de Profesores Hispanos, and the Cerritos College History Department.