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West High School Walkout of 1969
 
(Photo courtesy: Lala Cerros)
 

By James Mejia
news@lavozcolorado.com
 
10/14/2015

El Chicano Movimiento series
PART II of V

As a 16 year-old high school junior in 1969, Jeanie Perez would load up her ‘54 Chevy Belair with her friend Priscilla Martinez and 10 or 12 others from the Westwood projects and head over to the Crusade for Justice Headquarters. During the week the trips might be to get tutoring help for west side youth or practice for the Teatro de la Causa de los Pobres in which she was an actor. On weekends she and her crew paid $.25 each to get into the Westwood dances that the Crusade put on for Chicano kids.

On March 19, 1969, the trip to the Crusade offices was different. Perez and Martinez were there to report that the planning they had done to protest racist policies at their high school was starting to generate so much excitement that students were spreading the word to walkout the next day. It was a late night as picket signs were constructed and chants formulated. Little did they know that the next day would not attract the 50 or so students expected but rather hundreds of students and supporting family and Crusade for Justice members.

The previous seven months had been hell for Perez. Daily racist comments from West High Social Studies teacher Harry Schafer had gone unabated. When Perez challenged Schafer about his disparaging remarks about Mexicans, the hazing grew worse from mispronouncing and mocking Perez’ name to calling Chicano students and the Crusade ignorant and uneducated. Perez had spent the previous summer in the Crusade’s Freedom School which taught basic Chicano history to young Denverites and her correction of Schafer’s history lessons brought an invitation from him to debate a member of the Crusade. But when Crusade members Gilbert Quintana and Ernesto Vigil showed up, Schafer said he didn’t want to waste his time and left the classroom for the teacher’s lounge. “Free reign in the classroom is exactly what we needed to hear of all the students’ complaints and provided us an opportunity to obtain their families’ contact information to be able to enlist their support in opposition of Schafer and other racist policies. The irony is that his arrogance allowed us to organize,” according to Vigil.

When the West High Walkout finally happened on March 20, 1969, students had circulated their demands for school change and were supported by their families, community members and Crusade activists who arrived to keep the walkout orderly and peaceful. They were met by police armed with gas masks, billy clubs and tear gas canisters.

“A lot of us were scared to death, we were just out there to demand some rights, we weren’t being violent. We were out there with families. Our younger brothers and sisters walked out. We didn’t have any riot gear or gas masks. The police did and they came ready for war,” said Perez. “I noticed my brother Max was passed out from the gas by a tree. I revived him with a little snow that was on the ground and then we took off running.”

Under swarms of helicopters and clouds of tear gas, students dispersed and met back at the Crusade’s Escuela Tlaltelolco to regroup. Amongst many, Corky and Nita Gonzales had been arrested as had founding board members, Desi DeHerrera and Carlos Santistevan and Perez’ sister, Margo.

The West High Walkout or Blowout as it became known was patterned after the 1968 walkout in East Los Angeles. After Denver and L.A., walkouts took place across the Southwestern United States focusing attention on racism in the country’s public school system. According to Vigil, “The walkouts in Texas, Colorado and California were not coordinated efforts. They were all locally homegrown walkouts yet students always had the same demands – bilingual education, diversification of faculty and curriculum reform to include our history.”

The West High Blowout had the intended effect. In the ensuing days every high school in Denver with a heavy Chicano population had a walk out as did schools in Adams County and even some rural counties across the state. Vigil calls the walkout, “The central event in Denver for what was later called the Chicano Movement. The Crusade was made up of middle-aged people prior to that and the walkout motivated thousands of young people to get educated and join the movement.”

Perez reflected, “We put our lives on the line. Our protests eventually became thousands of people. No damn permits, these were our streets and we went straight out. There was a lot of camaraderie and brotherhood in those days.”

Part 1 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8071
Part 2 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8082
Part 3 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8093
Part 4 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8102
Part 5 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8112
Epilogue www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8111

 

 

 

 

 
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