Man in the Middle
Forty years ago this spring, Julian Nava '51, the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles School
Board, found himself in a precarious spot after thousands of students walked off East L.A. campuses
in the Chicano blowouts.
By Michael Balchunas
“Viva la Revolución!”
—A student protester’s sign during the East Los
Angeles school walkouts in March 1968.
“Most of the Mexican-Americans have never had it so good. … I say disregard all these self-appointed ‘minority leaders.’”
—A teacher’s opinion printed in the faculty newsletter
at East L.A.’s Lincoln High School during that time.
“The middle is the worst possible position to be in.”
—Julian Nava ’51, the first Mexican American elected to the Los Angeles
school board, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1968.
The students blew out of Woodrow Wilson High School in East L.A. on Friday, March 1, 1968. They made history by mistake. The original plan was for youths at several other East L.A. schools to bluff a multi-school, Latino-led walkout in May, to pressure school officials for educational reforms just before final exams. But rumors of a spring walkout had leaked, and the Eastside schools had become as vulnerable to ignition as the dry brown hills around them. Then the principal at Wilson angered some students by banning a play.
“The walkout spread like a brush fire,” says Julian Nava ’51. “I doubt that the extent of it was conceived at the outset.”
In the next few days, students at John A. Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Belmont high schools, all with heavy Latino enrollments in East L.A., headed for the exits to protest educational inequities. Students at Thomas Jefferson High in southeast Los Angeles, where the student body was predominantly African American, also walked out. The protests spread to about 15 other schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District. About 22,000 students, a staggering figure at the time, eventually boycotted classes.
Although the blowouts—a term that students coined and adopted—were mostly peaceful, dozens of people were arrested by police, and at least two students at Roosevelt, Nava’s alma mater, were clubbed and beaten.
“The attitude was, how dare these little brown people walk out on us,” says Sal Castro, a schoolteacher and friend of Nava’s who was advising the student leaders of the walkouts. Some students were crying or trembling in fear as they burst out of the schools, says Castro, an ebullient speaker who inspired great loyalty in his students and walked out with them. He also had recruited some Latino college students “for their heads,” he says, “not because they were so smart but so they could get between the high school kids and the police to take any beatings on their own heads.
“The kids were scared. They had seen 35 people killed down the road in
Watts a few years before, and they didn’t know what was going to happen to
them,” he says. “I never wanted thousands of kids on the street unsupervised.
It’s a deep, dark secret that I wanted to use the threat of a walkout as a way
to get the school board to listen to the kids. None of the Wilson students were
part of the planning committee, but they had heard of plans for a walkout. When
they went out, it took us by surprise—there went our bluff.”
THE YEAR BEFORE, Castro and several of the student activists had worked on Julian Nava’s campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board. It had seemed a long shot. School board candidates at the time ran districtwide, meaning Nava, a history professor at what was then San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge), won votes from outside his strong support base in East L.A. He also received some support from conservative, upper-income Anglo neighborhoods not only in Los Angeles, but also 11 adjacent cities that are part of the sprawling school district.
The incumbent, a conservative businessman, had warned during the campaign that Nava was a “liberal, sociologically motivated professor who by his associations must advocate sit-ins and love-ins.”
Nava won the seat, tilting the nominally nonpartisan board to a tenuous 4-3 majority of “liberals.” The “conservatives” were anchored by board member J.C. Chambers. But Nava was prepared for the likelihood that his political approach—too conciliatory for liberals desiring immediate change and too liberal for conservatives—would garner him few friends. Immediately after his election, Nava said that he did not regard himself as a “minority leader” or as a representative of one minority group.
“The only reason I ran,” he says, “was to cause a lot of trouble on the school board—the right kind of trouble.”
The wrong kind of trouble, in Nava’s view, was a militant path toward violence or destruction. By 1968, Nava says, the surging activism of Mexican Americans and other groups had raised national security concerns. A poem published in the months before the walkouts was among the most alarming developments, says Nava, who often speaks in measured, diplomatic tones, and who would later serve as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Carter administration.
“In Colorado, a Mexican-American activist named Corky Gonzales had published an epic poem, I Am Joaquin, which, in a fair reading, could be viewed with alarm,” Nava says. “The poem symbolically referred to Aztlán and the need for restoring ancestral lands. The concern about the ultimate meaning of Aztlán came at a time when French Canadians were arguing for separation and appeared to have the votes. Another activist was suing the government for the return of lands in New Mexico, saying they had been wrongly taken. “This was a part of the stew in which we found ourselves.”
Another volunteer from Nava’s election campaign, David Sanchez, a college student, had established a group called the Brown Berets, made up of young Latinos who wore uniforms and adopted a militant air, marching in unison during demonstrations. Many Brown Beret members were arrested during and after the walkouts.
“These quasi-military exercises were the kind of thing that scared the establishment,” says Nava, who was himself viewed by many of the student activists as part of the disdained ruling class. “‘My God! They’re developing an army! And there are so many of them!’”
In this contentious atmosphere, Nava sought reforms by working within the bureaucracy. The school board could not enact policy changes without compromise and careful attention to the members’ alliances, to the budget, to legalities and to public opinion.
During the walkouts, he says, he told Castro that he was violating the law, “so please don’t count on my public support. Sal said, ‘Don’t you support the walkouts?’ I said, ‘Emotionally, yes, but practically speaking, after four or five days, you’ve made your point. The school board is paying attention to the demands that were made. What we do now has to make sense, and abide by state law. I can’t advocate violating statutes.’
“Sal said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. But we still have to give you hell because you’re part of the establishment.’”
NAVA CREDITS CASTRO for keeping the incendiary climate from bursting into violence.
“Sal Castro informally coached the student leaders and alerted them to the pitfalls of going too far,” he says. “We joked about how we were going to bring about changes without burning down the barrio. And the board was very clear in private communications with the police department: Don’t hurt the kids other than in self-defense. The board did not feel this was something that called for violence.”
Still, the spring and summer were fraught with tension. The walkouts put Nava on the spot. His public statements alienated both sides. His friendship with Castro chafed under the strain. Security officials advised him to wear a bulletproof vest during public appearances. Nava was discreetly warned of wiretaps on the telephones at his school board office and home. At times, he took anti-anxiety medication. It would be revealed years later that the Chicano movement was rife with informants and subterfuge as a target of the government’s infamous Counter-Intelligence Program, CoIntelPro.
Nava says the school board concurred with most of the student activists’ original 35 demands, which included greater community control of schools, bilingual education, increased emphasis on Mexican culture and history, hiring more Latino teachers and principals, reducing class sizes, modernizing school buildings, and ending corporal punishment, such as paddling of students for speaking Spanish. In all, Nava says, 92 demands were ultimately expressed by students, parents and other community members at a school board meeting held at Lincoln High.
“The place was packed,” Nava says. “There were seats for maybe 1,800 people, and there were people standing in the aisles and loudspeakers for more people outside. The whole board, the superintendent and other key people—the ‘establishment’—was there. Just having the meeting at Lincoln was a big boost in morale for the Mexican-American community. People from all walks of life made remarks. Of the 92 demands, I think 85 or 86 had been implemented by the time I left the board in 1979. The school system is like the ship the Queen Elizabeth—it takes a long time to get going fast or slow down or turn left or right.”
Ironically, while the student activists were demanding school textbooks that elaborated on Mexican-American history and culture, Nava, whom some of the activists denounced as an Oreo or coconut—brown on the outside but white on the inside—was busy writing and editing the necessary books. The first of several,
Mexican Americans: Past, Present and Future, was published about the same time the walkouts took place.
Nava and his older brother, Henry, were not lacking in activist credentials themselves. Both had been politically engaged for many years; Henry had co-founded the Community Service
Organization in East Los Angeles, which César Chávez later joined. Julian would one day be a pallbearer at Chávez’s funeral.
After his election to the school board, Nava pondered the obligations he faced.
“It is not a member’s responsibility to be popular,” he concluded. “If a member is not the conscience of the community, he is less than nothing—a perversion,” he told the
Los Angeles Times in 1967. Less than a year later, a talk Nava delivered at the end of a student protest march from Lincoln High to Hazard Park in East L.A. illustrates how, by hewing to his conscience, he drew animosity from opposing camps.
“I gave a hellfire-and-brimstone talk” to the large crowd of milling students, Nava says. “I said the walkouts were understandable, they were justified, and they were a source of pride because at last Mexican Americans were beginning to speak up.” Such sentiments rankled many teachers, school administrators and non-Latino Los Angeles residents who wanted a tough crackdown on the protesters. But then Nava told the restive crowd that Mexican-American families did not compare favorably with other ethnic groups in support for education. He told the students that highly motivated individuals could succeed even under adverse conditions. “I said, ‘When you go back to school, then what? You can be what you want to be.’ I was telling them to get off their butts.
“Some took that in the spirit with which it was given,” he says, “but it also aroused considerable resentment. Someone threw an orange at me.”
In the weeks after the walkouts, Nava’s conscience continued to be tested. Castro was among 13 people indicted by a county grand jury in connection with the protests. He faced 15 felony counts each of conspiring to commit two misdemeanors: disrupting public schools and breach of peace. The conspiracy charges sought by District Attorney Evelle Younger carried a possible sentence totaling 150 years in prison. Nava publicly denounced Younger’s decision to seek the charges, describing them as politically motivated. Under a school board policy, which Nava also opposed, Castro was automatically removed from his teaching post at Lincoln High after being charged with a felony and was transferred to a non-teaching job as a “visual aid consultant” at the district’s central office.
The move drew bitter condemnation from student activists. In September, they began round-the-clock sit-ins at the school board office to demand that the board take action on reforms and that Castro be reinstated as a teacher while he and the other defendants, known as the “East L.A. 13,” fought the charges in court. During a tempestuous week, the school board met four times in five days to try to reach a resolution. The sit-ins stopped only after police arrested 35 of the demonstrators. The next night, the school board finally voted to alter the transfer policy and reinstate Castro as a teacher.
Henry Gutierrez, now an associate professor of social science at California State University, San Jose, was a college student when he took part in the 1968 protest.
“I remember that Dr. Nava spoke to us during the sit-in,” Gutierrez says. “He advised us to end it. Although I think he was sympathetic to our aims, I don’t think he had any sympathy for what we were doing to try to achieve them.” Gutierrez says he still wonders, “Why did he tell us to stop?”
Nava says that “I wanted to hold the four-vote majority on the board, which I would have lost if that sit-in got out of hand. Some of the more boisterous students seemed to want to be arrested, and that would have been counterproductive. So I said, ‘You have made your point and we understand how you feel. And now it’s a decision the board has to make, and you don’t help by continuing the sit-in.’ But young people sometimes find it hard to take that step back. They have a heroic frame of mind.”
The “East L.A. 13” were ultimately exonerated, and Nava does not contest the impact of the students’ direct action. Because of the walkouts, he says, the school board and the public “saw what the alternative was” if the status quo was maintained. Even conservative board member Chambers was won over.
“There was a need to change board rules by which administrators and principals were chosen,” Nava says. In the point system used, tenths of a percent often decided who was selected, “which could not possibly be meaningful because of the subjectivity involved,” and minority-group members were clearly being slighted. The board decided that “to meet the special needs of a community, special qualifications of candidates could be taken into account, provided they were already among the top candidates. This is what made possible the appointment of Mexican-American administrators. For example, at a school like Lincoln, where three-fourths of the students were Hispanic, it was very handy for the principal to be bilingual. And J.C. [Chambers] voted for this. He was not willing to change the whole system, but this was a way to get around the problem.”
Not all of Nava’s actions during the walkout period involved bureaucratic wrangling. After one board meeting, he says, a source quietly told him, “Julian, there’s going to be a raid at the Brown Berets’ headquarters; it may already be under way, and they are going to try to implicate the Brown Berets.” Nava quickly gathered his things, ducked into the chauffeured car that board members were provided, and told the driver: “Get me to Brooklyn and Soto as fast as you can.” At the Brown Berets’ headquarters, “Everybody was looking at me, with the attitude ‘What are you doing coming in here?’
“I went out on the sidewalk with David Sanchez, and told him, ‘You are going to be raided any minute now, and they’ll probably try to plant something here. You obviously have a turncoat among the group. Now I’ve got to get out of here.’ He said, ‘OK, thank you.’ About 10 minutes later, the police raided the office. But before they got there, the Brown Berets had found some pot hidden in the toilet tank, and flushed it. Within minutes after that, police were pounding on the door. And they disheveled everything because they didn’t find what they expected to find. To this day, whenever I see David, we give an abrazo, a hug, because he remembers. Because he would have been in prison.”
CASTRO AND THE FORMER student activists today have earned heroic standing among many young Mexican Americans. At public appearances, students clamor to be photographed with Castro, who is still a charismatic figure and still focused on helping Chicano youths organize for empowerment. Nava’s involvement as a board member during the famous blowouts, by contrast, has drawn little public notice. In
Walkout, an HBO movie, Nava was portrayed by actor-director Edward James Olmos, who appeared only briefly.
During a recent interview, Nava mentioned, with a trace of wistfulness, that he had not been invited to many commemorations or panel discussions of the walkouts. “I think some of the high school leaders may still bear some kind of a grudge or resentment against me,” he said, although he quickly added, “What they do is all to the good, which is to encourage young people to realize that change is possible through concerted action.” He had said he probably would not go even if invited to events because they were too far from his home near San Diego, and “There’s no need to get on a pulpit anymore.”
However, when the current Los Angeles school board arranged a 40th anniversary commemoration of the walkouts this March, it invited not only Castro and the student leaders, but also Nava.
The board’s meeting room was filled. Reading from the transcript of a March 1968 meeting, members of the current board reenacted a scene in which Nava, opposed by J.C. Chambers, sought to schedule the board meeting at Lincoln High “to hear from students and the community.”
“It is contrary to board rules to listen to students without their parents,” recited the board member portraying Chambers.
Looking on were a dozen graying but still fervent leaders of the 1968 walkouts, some of whom had been sharply critical of Nava that year. Also in the audience were student leaders of today. Many posed for pictures with Castro. In keeping with a characteristic of their generation, the activists dressed casually, one in a colorful ’60s-style vest. Some pumped their fists in the air. Sanchez wore a brown beret.
When the reenactment ended, the board began handing out plaques. Nava, wearing a crisp dark suit, was the first called forward. Board President Mónica Garcia lauded him as “a trailblazer in our community.” Nava turned toward the audience, raised two fingers in a ’60s peace sign, and called the commemoration “a beautiful occasion.” Of the walkouts, he said, “It was a peaceful revolution. Every now and then I had to be the bad guy.”
Castro, still a rousing public speaker, stepped up and praised Nava. Then the student leaders of the 1968 blowouts gathered around. They were all smiles and abrazos.
It turns out the middle is not always the worst possible position to be in.