The Lessons Our Comunidad Can Learn From the East LA Blowouts

At this point, I’ve written over 4,000 words in the past week alone on the 50th anniversary of the East LA Blowouts, the iconic protests in which thousands of Chicano students walked out of their schools to speak out against education inequity. I tackled the subject in my weekly Los Angeles Times column, arguing that #neveragain activists can learn from their peers of 50 years ago. I mapped out locations across Los Angeles that proved crucial to the development and execution of the rallies. I talked about the Jewish youth camp in Malibu where generations of Chicano activists learned leadership skills, and where high school teacher Sal Castro first broached the subject of huelga with students who went on to lead the blowouts. And, in perhaps the unlikeliest yet most-Gustavo article I’ve ever written, I examined the hidden foodways of the rallies—no, seriously.

Many others have chimed in with their thoughts, as well—this LA Times overview is particularly awesome. So what else could I possibly add to this topic? Un chingo, and especially as it pertains to our comunidad (I’ll use that term instead of overarching labels lest I get emails haha).

Many of the articles have tried to explain the Blowouts to people, but what I want to focus on here is the lessons our comunidad  —specifically us, and not any other groups, although they’re more than welcome to learn alongside us— need to take from the Blowouts.

I honestly can’t remember when I first learned about them. I know it wasn’t in high school, because our administrators and teachers didn’t teach us ethnic-studies anything while I attended Anaheim High in the mid-1990s (I committed the classic Mexican-American sin of mistaking labor legend César Chávez with boxing legend Julio César Chávez many, many times). I knew nothing about them in community college, or at Chapman University. I think I must’ve learned about the Blowouts at UCLA, while I worked on getting a master’s degree in Latin American Studies.

I had to have had. One of my faculty advisors was Juan Gómez-Quiñones, whom everyone called Profe GQ. He was a gruff but kind man who was a genius at connecting popular culture to America’s long tradition of Mexican-hating. I remember the time we were once in class, and he showed us a clip of A Bug’s Life, a charming 1998 Pixar film. I had enjoyed it in the theaters, but now GQ was telling us it was racist? Many of us scoffed until he screened a clip of Kevin Spacey’s creepy grasshopper Hopper drinking at a cantina. Shaped like a sombrero. Where Hopper rails about a swarming, swarthy mass rising up against colonizers.

Did the Pixar people study Pete Wilson’s xenophobic 1994 California gubernatorial campaign?

Anyways, I must’ve learned about the Blowouts in GQ’s class, because he was of the era. But it wasn’t until researching them this past month that I finally realized who exactly GQ was. I knew he was one of the founding fathers of Chicano Studies—but he was also one of the UCLA students whom mentored East LA high schoolers in the months leading up to, during, and after the Blowouts. Did GQ ever volunteer any of this information during my time at UCLA (I had him for at least two claases)? Not once.

Many other Blowout alumni, of course, went on to illustrious careers: artist Harry Gamboa, film producer Moctezuma Esparza, former LA Unified board member Vickie Castro, to name just some of the most famous. And this doesn’t name the hundreds of teachers, professors, counselors and others who dedicated their life to uplifting our comunidad after the come-to-Jesus moment of the Blowouts. Many of them are still alive, reaching retirement. They’re getting a victory lap this month… then probably go back to living their lives.

We shouldn’t let them. They are now our elders. At a time where so many of us are fighting an administration that wants to deport millions in our comunidad, enact tax codes that will hammer down on many of nosotros, and seems to want to start wars that will disproportionately affect the working class among us, we must search for people in the past who took on the system and won. And we’ve got an entire generation of a bonafide success story with the Blowouts kids-turned-adults. The great thing is that a lot of them are still in the lucha, but even just talking to them about how it was as teens to take on the world is inspiring. At a time when school districts nationwide grapple with whether to teach ethnic studies in classrooms, the Blowout generation shows how easy we can accomplish this—and my initial ignorance shows how critical it is to get these stories to our youth as quickly as possible.

I also think the journey of these elders can help bridge one of the biggest issues currently gripping our comunidad right now: the age gap. A new generation of activists has risen to fight the good lucha, whether the issue is DACA, gentrification, education, LGBTQ rights, police brutality, or usually the intersectionality of all of them. The older generation has sometimes cheered them on, but also criticized them—sometimes fairly, too often not. The genius of Castro and the other adults that helped the East LA students was exactly that. They helped. They didn’t lead. They understood that while adults were invested in the struggle, it ultimately wasn’t theirs.

Us old-timers (and yep, as a 39-year-old, I’m now definitely a viejo) need to learn from that selfless example. But the youth of today should also learn from their Eastlos antecedents. Although jóvenes ultimately executed the Blowouts, they didn’t get there alone. All along, they leaned on adult allies, from the college students who served as immediate mentors to the 20-something year-old members of the Brown Berets to Castro, who was all of 34 when he helped the students. And there were even older people who allowed youth to use their spaces, who praised the cause in the face of other skeptical adults, and who defended them in their spheres of influence. Experience does teach; the olds aren’t always bad. They went through what youth did, albeit in different times. But olds aren’t automatically the enemy, especially when we have a shared one that laughs any time we throw bombs at ourselves.

We should take the 50th anniversary of the Blowouts as an opportunity to reflect, because there will never be as much attention placed on them again. Americans tend to not commemorate singular protests much as the years go by and those involved get older. By the 75th anniversary, many will be in their 90s, if they’re still around at all. Activists of today are doing a great job at commemorating the Blowouts—Cal State LA had a walk-in this weekend (and will feature an exhibit through May that will display photos, newspaper clippings, and documents from the era), and there will be more in the coming weeks.

So let’s take all these events to improve ourselves. At one point in our comunidad’s long battle for respect in this country, a group of teens took on the power and won with the help of allies. And if they were able to do it, then there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

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Gustavo Arellano is the California columnist for the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages, and has covered Southern California and Latino everything for the past 16 years. He tweets from @GustavoArellano.

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