VIEW FROM THE PIERbyHerrman Sillas
In the course of fifty-three years as a lawyer I have represented many clients, but one stands out.We met in the sixties in the height of the Chicano Movement. Sal Castro was a young handsome teacher atLincoln High School in Los Angeles. We met when I incorporated the Association of Mexican AmericanEducators (AMAE). He was part of a group who was concerned about the high drop-out rate of MexicanAmerican students from school. These teachers believed that if they united, the schools would have tolisten to their concern about the plight of Latino students.Mexican American teachers were few in those days and school administrators of Mexican heritagewere even scarcer. Yet this group was determined to make a difference. Evening planning sessions wereheld to develop strategies on how to change a school system that ignored Mexican American
culture and heritage.The 1965 Watts Riot
and its aftermath revealed the Black community’s concern. It als
o caused theMexican American students to assess their condition. They became aware that their Eastside schoolslacked the facilities of the Anglo Westside schools.
At Castro’s suggestion, t
hey presented their complaintsand concerns to the school administrators. The District still paid no attention. The
frustrationincreased. Castro was convinced that nothing would happen unless the students had a strike. The more hethought about it, the more convinced he was that the students had to walkout; Castro was prepared to leadthem. His teaching companions balked. They could lose their jobs if they took such a step. Sal knew theywere right. Not only could he lose his job, he could lose his license to teach. But Sal figured why have ateaching license, if you are not allowed to teach students in a way you know they will learn?So, in March of 1968, Sal led over 4000 L.A. students in a walkout of five high schools demandingchanges. For three days students walked out of classes in protest. This was a new breed. They calledthemselves Chicanos. They were proud of their heritage and exercised free speech as Americans. Parentswere critical at first, but supported the students when they came home with welts from police batons.Then a white Grand Jury issued a felony indictment charging Sal Castro and twelve otherdefendants with a conspiracy to disturb the schools. The thirteen defendants became known as the
Sal asked me to defend him. The ACLU and their experienced attorneys joined in the legal battle.Ultimately, the Appellate Court struck down the indictment as an infringement of free speech.Throughout this period, I observed the commitment that Castro had toward his students. He wentwhere no other teacher would go. He put his license and freedom on the line. The administration thensought to remove him from the classroom and I defended him in that matter. Castro never blinked.Although they removed him from the classroom for a short time, he returned there teaching his students of their heritage and contributions of their ancestors to this nation. Schools were never the same after thewalkouts. Educators took notice and reevaluated their approach of ignoring cultural and heritagebackgrounds of their students.Even when he retired from the classroom, he continued to raise money for student conferences,where they became motivated, stayed in school, and went on to universities. Sal was my hero. He stoodup against all odds in life and won. But cancer claimed him recently. Every Latino student now inCalifornia, whether he or she knows it, owes their education in some way, to a young dedicated fearlessteacher named Sal Castro.
view from the pier.***30***
Herman Sillas, a San Clemente resident and L.A. attorney can be found most weekend mornings fishing on the San Clemente pier. He can be reached at email@example.com )