'Be Down with the Brown!'(1998)

by Elizabeth ("Betita") Martinez

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 "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.
As 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 "Chicano Power!"
The 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.
Almost 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.
California's 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.
The 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 pepper-sprayed.
Another 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.
At 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.
On 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.
For 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.
The 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.
Calls 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!"
In 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.
Cinco 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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