Blowout brave

Salvador Castro, a Mexican American teacher angered by discrimination became an icon of Latino struggle


Blowout! Sal Castro and
the Chicano Struggle for
Educational Justice
Mario T. García and Sal Castro
2011, University of North
Carolina Press
384 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE BLOWOUT was the term given to a school walkout during the historic protests of 1968 in which Chicano students in East Los Angeles protested against drastically inferior education.

They were led by the brave and charismatic Salvador Castro – a Mexican American teacher angered by the failure of school administrators and boards to address a form of discrimination in the classroom that simply would not be tolerated today.

The blowouts became part of US urban legend and effectively gave birth to the Chicano Movement of subsequent years, a civil rights initiative spawned by the unequal conditions Mexican Americans were enduring in education that resonated again in 2006 when Hispanics across the country marched demanding action on unfair immigration policies.

At 78, the indefatigable Castro is still active and continues to lecture about his experiences and the importance of education for Mexican Americans. This book is a testimonio – his story – recounted and transcribed by historian Mario García.

Racial discrimination

García recounts the many incidents of overt racial discrimination against Mexicans in California in the period Sal grew up in from the late 1930s into the 1950s, and tells how these sparked his political awareness. In one absurd case while he was in the army he had to stop during a flight at Dallas airport. He went into the airport restaurant – dressed in his US army uniform – but staff refused to serve him. Sal recalled:

“I go over to the airport restaurant and those sons of bitches wouldn’t serve me. They still remember the Alamo. This was in 1954. I was in the US Army uniform – not the Mexican Army, the US Army!”

As the story of the walkouts is, in essence, Sal Castro’s story, the book fills an important place in the history of the Chicano movement: despite his importance, he still remains relatively unknown beyond California and among most Americans.

But it is important that this story reaches a wider readership, as is pointed out at the end of this book, for two key reasons.

First, aspects of contemporary US education continue to put up discriminatory barriers towards Latino students, such as an overemphasis on testing which stretches resources in inner-city schools, restrictions to the budget of state schools which benefits primarily Anglos, and new schooling models in which the promise to attract a diverse range of pupils is often illusory.

Second, as Mario García notes in the afterword, there is a strong coincidence in the consciousness-raising approach taken by Sal Castro through the Chicano Youth Leadership Conferences during the 1960s that led to the blowouts and the work of the progressive Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire. García writes:

“Sal Castro was not aware of Freire. Indeed, Freire and his work were not well known in the United States in the 1960s… [Nevertheless] many of Freire’s concepts of how to achieve a liberating and humanistic education that will achieve progressive social change can be seen in the dialogical relationship between teacher Sal Castro, on the one hand, and the Chicano student participants at the leadership conferences, on the other.” [p. 108]

The blowouts, put simply, were a turning point in Latino history in the US because even though they may not have transformed the schooling system itself, they sparked a new consciousness within a generation of young chicanos that fuelled the future struggle against discrimination.

It is enlightening, therefore – and no coincidence – that García contexualises his study of Sal Castro within the wider parameters offered by Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” which argued that traditional education that upheld the ideology of the oppressors had to be overturned and replaced with one that solved human problems. A neat Latin American synthesis applied to a forgotten corner of Latin America: California.

We might add that discrimination, nonetheless, continues against Mexican Americans fuelled by deep-rooted yet often well concealed racist sentiments among whites and some other communities towards Latin Americans in general. The schoolroom will always be the principal tool of the state in countering that discrimination if politicians have the courage to do so.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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