LOS ANGELES — Sal Castro, a social studies teacher who played a leading role in 1960s Chicano student walkouts, has died at age 79.
Castro had thyroid cancer and died Monday at his home, his wife, Charlotte Lerchenmuller, told the Los Angeles Times.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Castro was born in Los Angeles but spent some of his early childhood in Mexico. He couldn’t speak English when he returned to Los Angeles in the second grade and was made to sit in the corner.
“I started thinking, these teachers should be able to understand me,” Castro said in a 1988 interview with the Times. “I didn’t think I was dumb; I thought they were dumb.”
Castro was a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School near downtown in March 1968 when he supported and joined walkouts by hundreds of Mexican-American students.
Their “blowouts” protested run-down and overcrowded East Los Angeles schools, poor teachers and discrimination. Castro earlier worked with students and graduates to present the school board with a list of demands aiming to improve the schools.
“The curriculum largely ignored or denied Mexican-American history,” said a statement from the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Chicano students were forbidden from speaking Spanish, and often in spite of strong academic abilities, they were steered toward menial jobs instead of college.”
Walkouts lasted several days and spread to 15 schools. Castro and 12 other people were arrested. He was jailed for five days and charged with 30 counts of conspiracy, but the charges ultimately were dropped.
Castro was fired after the walkouts but was rehired after weeks of protests by local parents. However, he was sent to different schools around the district for several years before finally being settled at Belmont High. He retired in 2004.
“Sal Castro held a mirror up to our district that showed the need for a youths’ rights agenda more than 45 years ago,” district Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement. “Graduation rates, access to college-prep courses, allocation of resources, all of these issues needed fixing and that is why we have spent every day striving to provide the education each and every one of our students deserves.”
Salvador B. Castro Middle School was dedicated to him in 2010.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who took part in the student walkouts, called Castro a courageous leader who helped shape city history.
“He will always be remembered for his zeal and commitment to improving educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of race,” the mayor said in a statement.
In later years, Castro urged students to study if they wanted to improve conditions at their schools.
“Here’s the protest: any kid with a book,” he told a 2008 symposium on Chicano activism at California State University, San Bernardino. “That’s the only way we can move forward, through education.”