'Be Down with the Brown!'(1998)
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 "blowouts," as they were called,
began with several thousand students from six barrio schools, then
increased every day for a week until more than 10,000 had struck.
Shouting "Chicano Power!" and "|Viva la revolucion!"
they brought the city's school system—the largest in the United
States—to a total halt.
scholar-activist Carlos Munoz Jr. later wrote in his book Youth,
Identity, Power, the strike was "the first time Chicano
students had marched en masse in their own demonstration against
racism and for educational change." Not only that; it was the
first mass protest specifically focused on racism by any Chicanas or
Chicanos in U.S. history. (This is not to deny the many huge strikes
of Raza workers with labor demands that often had their roots in
racist conditions on the job.) With the 1968 protests, students moved
beyond the prevailing politics of accommodation to a new cry for
blowouts sparked other protests, including the first action ever by
Chicano university students, at San Jose State College, and then
Chicano participation in the long, militant Third World student
strikes at San Francisco State and the University of California,
Berkeley. New Raza college-student organizations emerged, while
existing ones grew rapidly. All this took place at a time of youth
rebellion nationwide and worldwide—from Mexico to France to
Japan. Here, Raza students stood out because the great majority came
from the working class. Their main goal was affirmation of their own
culture's values and history rather than a counter-culture, such as
many Anglo youth were celebrating.
30 years later, Raza high school students from California to Colorado
repeated that history with new blowouts demanding more Latino
teachers and counselors; Ethnic Studies (not only Latino but also
African-American, Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander);
bilingual education sensitive to students' cultural needs; and Latino
student-retention programs. Other issues were often added; in
California, these included combating repressive new anti-crime laws,
preventing the re-election of right-wing Gov. Pete Wilson and
fighting Proposition 187 with its inhumane call to deny educational
and health services to anyone suspected of being undocumented.
blowouts focused on public schools in the northern part of the state
at first, then spread south. The students, mostly of Mexican or
Salvadoran background, came from high school, junior high and
sometimes elementary school. Why a walkout during school hours rather
than a march or rally on the weekend? Because, as they learned,
California's public schools lose $ 17.20 or more for each unexcused
absence per day. This pocketbook damage provided the economic
centerpiece of the students' strategy. With it, they made history.
first wave seemed to burst out of nowhere. On April 1, 1993, more
than 1,000 mostly Latino junior high and high school students walked
out of a dozen Oakland schools. On September 16, celebrated as
Mexican Independence Day, more than 4,000 blew out in Oakland,
Berkeley, San Jose, and the town of Gilroy. Arrests and violence were
rare, although in Gilroy police did arrest teenager Rebecca
Armendariz and harassed her for months with charges of 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
wave of student strikes unrolled in November and December in northern
California. In 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—but only six of their teachers—are Latino.
Mission High School in San Francisco, 200 Latino and other students
demonstrated for the same anti-racist reasons as elsewhere, and also
for being stereotyped as gangbangers if they wore certain kinds of
clothing. The school board agreed to their main demand for Latino
Studies, and then offered just one class—to be held before and
after the regular school day. The basic message: this concession
isn't for real.
to February 2, 1994, which marked the anniversary of the signing of
the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirming the U.S. takeover of
half of Mexico—today's Southwest. In Sacramento, the walkout
movement spread like wildfire. Some 500 high school students and
supporters from various districts shook up the state capital. "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," they
said, as reported by the local paper Because People Matter.
Cesar Chavez's birthday in March, nearly 150 Latino students from
four city schools marched on district offices in Richmond. On April
18, half of the elementary school pupils in the town of Pittsburgh
boycotted classes, with parental support, because a Spanish-speaking
principal had been demoted. They had their tradition: 20 years
before, Pittsburgh elementary school students had boycotted for lack
of a Latino principal.
spring wave climaxed on April 22 with a big, coordinated blowout
involving more than 30 schools in northern California. It was
unforgettable. Some 800 youth gathered in San Francisco under signs
such as "Educate, Don't Incarcerate" and "Our Story
Not His-story," and with beautiful banners of Zapata and armed
women of the Mexican Revolution.
for unity across racial and 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 girl. Another shouted, "It's not just about
Latinos or Blacks or Asians, this is about the whole world!"
Some of the loudest cheers rang out from a 16-year-old woman who
cried "We've got to forget these [gang] colors!"
the town of Hayward that day, 1,500 high school and junior high
students boycotted more than 20 schools. About 300 of them 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.
de Mayo, May 5, brought more blowouts, followed by a June gathering
in Los Angeles of900 high school students. The youth themselves were
startled by their own success. Sergio Arroyo, 16, of Daly City, spoke
what others were thinking: "People didn't think it could happen,
all that unity, but it did." Lucretia Montez from Hayward High
said "We're making history. Yeah, we're making history."
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