He is perhaps best known for his role in the 'walkouts' of five East Los Angeles public schools forty-five years ago in March 1968. The seminal moment in the history of the Chicano Movement was made into an HBO film in 2006 and the role of Castro was played by Michael Peña.
After the student demonstrations, which were repressed by police, the Lincoln High School Teacher was charged with 15 counts of conspiracy to disrupt public schools and fifteen counts of conspiracy to disturb the peace. He became known as part of the "East LA 13" and faced serious jail time if convicted. The charges were eventually dropped, though, and Castro's vigorous advocacy continued.
"The walkouts were a symbol of his cause," says Victoria 'Vickie' Castro, who marched alongside him in them as a college student organizer and later served on the LAUSD Board of Education. "We had to make a bold statement; that we were qualified and had the desire to attend college."
Sal Castro also made a significant contribution to the cause of education rights in establishing the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference. Starting in 1963, the aim was to train a new generation of activists in encouraging them to demand better conditions so that more high school graduates could go on to college. It has continued in that spirit for decades. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the CYLC's founding.
Castro's advocacy faced resistance to be sure. "He paid a price for his commitment," says Mario T. Garcia, UC Santa Barbara Professor of History and Chicano Studies. "Sal was harassed by the school district. After he was arrested, he was told he could not come back to Lincoln." Students staged a sit-in to have him reinstated, but that was only a temporary victory.
"He was bounced around from school to school," says Garcia, who also is the author of Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. "That never daunted Sal. He was someone who shined it off and moved forward."
In his years as a retired educator, Castro continued on charismatically lecturing on the issues that defined his lifetime. "Don't be a pendejo, go to college!" read the back of his business card. As a student in the Puente Project at Savanna High School in Anaheim, I was fortunate enough to hear the passion of his advocacy as he gave a talk encouraging higher education as an aspiration to all those assembled. It was a message I took to heart.
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"There's thousands of Chicanos and Latinos that are truly unaware that he opened that admission door. For young people today, they need to not take their educational opportunities for granted," Vickie Castro pleads. "Even with budget cuts and other difficulties, in Sal's honor, they can't give up the fight."
As a scholar, Garcia was able to ask Castro about his legacy before his passing this morning. "One of the things that I'll always remember is my last question to him for the book asking how he would like to be remembered," Garcia says.
"He replied, 'All I want on my tombstone is 'Sal Castro, a teacher.'"