Unacknowledged Fighters: Latino High School Student Activists

Oct 20, 2016
7:03 AM

In March, a student hung a banner that read “Build a Wall” at Forest Grove High School in Oregon. Outraged, Latino students walked out of school to express their frustrations with racism.  The next day, students throughout Washington County joined them. The walkout resonated with Latino high school students in Portland.

“The Latino community has been experiencing racism and discrimination for far too long,” said Roosevelt High School junior Edith Garcia. She told a reporter that staff members had made disparaging statements, such as telling her that she might not graduate on time and that Latino students were slow learners. “I was feeling the same things the Latino students in Forest Grove were feeling,” she said. “Thanks to their walking-out demonstrations last week, it enabled me to follow in their footsteps.”

High school student walkout in Portland, Oregon 

The student walkouts in Forest Grove and Portland didn’t happen in isolation. Rather, they occurred at a time when high school students across the nation have organized to fight against budget cuts, police brutality, racism and other issues. Latino students have been on the front lines of these struggles in cities such as Boston, Chicago and Allentown, Pennsylvania. They have been politicized by movements such as the campaign for immigration reform and Black Lives Matter.

Much of this activism comes at the heels of a 2016 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) report on the state of Latino youth. In the foreword, NCLR President and CEO Janet Murguia said, “Problems such as generational poverty, discrimination, bigotry and demonization, and other factors [sic] impede the positive development of young children of color…we can and must do better.” This statement coincided with numerous stories of Latino high school students encountering “Build a wall” chants and other forms of prejudices from their peers.

While the NCLR report is necessary, it overlooks how Latino youth have fought for a better education and an egalitarian society. They have not stood by as passive victims to anti-Latino sentiment and structural barriers. Rather, they have organized various demonstrations to remedy these problems. Their actions within the past two years needs to be acknowledged because it provides a more holistic portrayal of Latino youth in society.

A Brief History

Latino high school student activism isn’t a new phenomenon. During the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Chicano movement and Puerto Rican nationalism, Mexican American and Puerto Rican students created youth organizations, published underground newspapers and organized student strikes. Their successes varied. Quite often, these protests were met with a police response.

Walkouts organized by Mexican Americans occurred all throughout the Southwest and in Midwestern cities. In Kansas City, Missouri, Chicano youth at West High School held a walkout in September 1969 and demanded that September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) be declared a national holiday, called for unity for all Chicanos and that school officials include Mexican American culture in the curriculum and launch bilingual classes. In March 1969, racial remarks uttered by a teacher at West High School in Denver led to a two-day demonstration. Students at several other junior and high schools joined the students at West. The protest turned violent on both days, as police officers swag clubs and fired tear gas at students. After the confrontation, Chicano students worked to increase faculty diversity (less than one percent of Denver Public School’s teaching staff was Latino), cultural training for teachers and bilingual study options for students.

The 1969 West High School Blowouts

Frustrations over schools that pushed students towards manual labor rather than college often encouraged Mexican American students to organize walkouts. Although many of these students’ families had been in the United States for several generations, they were still treated as second-class citizens.

“We didn’t have hot water.  Windows were broken… Books were old, walls were dingy and there was no air conditioning,” said Richard Herrera, a former student at Edgewood High School in San Antonio.

In May 1968, students at two San Antonio high schools walked out of school, demanding coursework rather than vocational training, better facilities and the removal of the district superintendent because the students believed that he was indifferent toward their plight. They were highly successful. By the summer of that year, the superintendent was replaced, the school offered preparatory courses, students were no longer punished for speaking Spanish and the building was refurbished.

Puerto Ricans were largely concentrated in the Northeast and attended schools with African Americans. Thus, it was quite common in some cities for both groups worked together. In New York City in 1969, the two groups created the Black and Puerto Rican Citywide High School Council, which demanded the removal of police from schools, advocated self-defense classes, the hiring of Black faculty and the establishment of student-faculty council to address discipline concerns.

Puerto Rican students’ protests were also met with a police response. In 1973, Chicago police were met with flying bricks, rocks and pieces of wood as students, parents and local residents sought to conduct a sit-in at the heavily Puerto Rican-populated Tuley High School. They sought to remove the school’s principal, who they believed was insensitive to “Latin students,” as well as demanded building improvements, curriculum changes and that the school be renamed after Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente. Today, Roberto Clemente Community Academy sits across the street where Tuley High use to stand.

A New Era

Although Mexican Americans and Puerto Rican youth waged tough struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, challenges remain. While teachers aren’t likely to utter racial remarks to students, subconscious bias still exists. Reports show that teachers have low expectations for Latino youth. Armed police and other security measures are used in schools with large minority populations at a higher rate than at predominately White schools. And Latino students are still more likely than Whites to attend high-poverty schools.

The presences of undocumented youth pose a unique aspect to Latino youth activism, but the lack of documentation status hasn’t stopped them from organizing. In January, hundreds of high school students from several schools in Minneapolis walked out of school to protest U.S. immigration policies. Many at the gathering said they’ve seen family members deported and heard stories of ICE officials knocking on doors unannounced.

“Honestly it’s scary to wake up every morning knowing that something can happen, that someone can take my family away,” said one 14-year-old student who was undocumented. While a student walkout cannot change immigration policies, the mere fact that these students took the initiative to voices their concerns shows that Latino youth are active participants in the immigration reform movement.

High school student walkouts in Minneapolis, Minnesota 

The Black Lives Matter movement has also politicized Latino students. In Baltimore, members of a Latino high school organization at Baltimore City College called Somos cited the protests over the death of Freddie Gray as an inspiration for organizing direct action.

“It showed we as young people can make an event,” said 16-year-old Jinette Minaya. As of February, the group has demanded bilingual education and that city schools hire more Spanish-speaking staff.

Latino students have also expressed their concerns over police brutality in places such as San Francisco and Denver. Although the national dialogue has largely focused on African American males, some students realized that this is an issues that needs support from everyone.

“Not only are these African-American people standing up for what they believe is the injustice that has been done to them by police brutality, but there are other races supporting them as well,” said Michael Chavez, a student at East High School in Denver during a district-wide walkout.

Proposed budget cuts has led to the largest high school student demonstration of the year. In Boston, where Latinos are the largest group in the school district at 41.5 percent, students organized two district-wide walkouts. The first walkout occurred in March in response to Mayor Marty Walsh’s proposed $50 million in public school budget cuts that he announced earlier in the year. After attending a leadership conference at Harvard University in February, Jailyn Lopez, a sophomore at Snowden International High School, and several other students helped organize their peers. Lopez posted about the walkout on Twitter:

On March 6, about 3,600 students were in the streets. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Walsh blamed outside agitators.

“I’d love to see who’s behind the walkout,” he said. “Whoever’s behind it, I hope they start to feed the young students in our city with accurate information and not misguided information.”

While the students did reach out to advocacy groups for assistance with poster boards and markers, the students were the organizers. Despite the mayor’s skepticism, he promised to spare budget cuts for the coming school year. But the persistence of pending cuts led students to walk out again in May. Only over 1,000 students were part of the demonstration. This time around, the students spoke directly to the city council to voices their concerns. Unfortunately, the city council approved the cuts in June.

While this might make the walkout appear as pointless, Latinos and other youth of color organized arguably one of the largest student walkouts in Boston since the series of walkouts organized by Black high school students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This alone is admirable since it involved youth engaging with local politics.

What Happens Next?

The battles waged of Latino high school student activists are stories that needs more acknowledgement. While high school students are an inherently transient population, these students are thinking about the future of their younger peers. As one student wrote in regards to the Boston Public School walkout, “I’m walking out because I want to see myself and others BPS students succeed in a system that works. We are the future.”Regardless of the shortcomings of youth activism, Boston students revealed that the walkouts were altruistic.

While recent reports of increasing Latino high school graduation rates are encouraging, we have to be cautious and acknowledge that this data leaves out certain factors. Looking at graduation rates alone discount schools that push students through who aren’t prepared for college. In New Jersey, for example, over 10,000 students graduated on appeals in 2016. On the local level, it’s even worse. In Camden, New Jersey, almost half of the students who graduated did so on appeals. It’s also not uncommon for a group like third- or fourth-generation Puerto Rican migrants to find themselves in disadvantaged schools.

Since Latino students are still disproportionately enrolled in under-resourced schools, youth activism will likely continue. Rather than belittle children by assuming that they cannot think for themselves, it would be more helpful to support them and listen to their concerns.  Only then will we be able to envision a society that these students are fighting for.


Originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington. Twitter: @aaronfountainjr