Remembering The Uvalde Public School Walkout of 1970

by: Alfredo R Santos c/s
Posted: March 19, 2021

Introduction

During the heyday of the Chicano Movement (1962-1978), school walkouts were organized to disrupt what MAYO (Mexican American Youth Organization) activists called “the ongoing mis-education of Chicano students.” [1] From Los Angeles, California to the Rio Grande Valley, in deep South Texas, public schools exploded with protest activity as students poured out of classes to call attention to the particularly poor classroom situations in which they found themselves.

Armando Navarro, in his book, Mexican American Youth Organization Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas, states there were at least 39 school walkouts during the Chicano Movement [2]. Some lasted one day, some lasted one week. In the case of Uvalde, Texas, where I was a student in 1970, the school walkout lasted six (6) weeks [3] and was quite possibly the second longest school boycott in history. The longest school disruption took place in San Angelo, Texas where parents kept their children out of classes for almost four (4) years. The year? 1910. [4] In almost every school blowout, the underlying issues had to do with the segregation and discrimination which students and their parents felt compelled to act upon.

Rationale for a Walkout

The idea behind a school walkout was to force a school district to address concerns and issues by reducing the revenue stream from the state which was derived from the average daily attendance figures. Basically, the more students that were out of classes, the less money the school district would receive. An attack on the financial health of an institution goes way back to the 1800s when tenants in Ireland took issue with the payment of rents due to absentee landlords. A collection agent by the name of Captain Charles Boycott, was the focus of their ire and thus the name. [5]

Stepping Up for Mr. Josue “George” Garza

In Uvalde, the initial issue had to do with the contract non-renewal of a popular Mexican American teacher by the name of Josue “George” Garza. [6] As the walkout became better organized, a list of 14 demands was presented to the school board. These demands included a call for more Mexican American teachers and courses in Chicano history. The all-Anglo school board refused to discuss the demands until all the students returned to school. The students, led by seniors Oscar Castro and Elvia Perez, (The rumor was that Elvia was going to be the valedictorian) held their ground and in a meeting before the school board on April 17th, 1970, told the trustees no – the walkout will continue!

The Walkout Grows

The walkout grew in size from 250 students the first day to almost 500 by the end of the first week. [7] At the middle school, which had two large buildings on Getty Street, one for the 7th graders and one for the 8th graders, so many 7th graders had joined the walkout that the school administration decided to shut the building down and move the remaining 7th graders over to the 8th grade building. [8]

In an attempt to frame the walkout, the school district used the local and regional media to portray it as an attempt by disenfranchised adults to use the students for political gain. Specifically, ridicule was employed to demoralize and humiliate the students. Letters to editor and statements from the school district in English tried to paint a portrait of how the only ones being hurt by the walkout were the students. [9] One letter to the editor in the local newspaper, the Uvalde Leader News, stated how the whole world was laughing at the Mexican American community.

The local Ministerial Alliance was called in to let the community at large know that the churches in Uvalde were not in support of this “radical act” of civil disobedience. A large announcement and public meeting were used during the first week to tamp down any growing support for the walkout. But the number of students who participated in the walkout continued to grow as parents discussed among themselves the merits of the 14 demands and reflected on their own educational experiences in the Uvalde public schools over the years.

Many parents recalled that it was not until the 1950s that larger numbers of Mexican Americans were finally graduating from Uvalde High School. Others remembered that there were no Mexican American cheerleaders until the early 1960s and that up until the late 1960s there were few Mexican American teachers at the high school. [10]

Organizing the Walkout

Jose Uriegas, an Uvalde native and former Uvalde City Council member, proved instrumental in gathering the resources to fund the walkout. As the director of the Minority Mobilization Project (Volunteers in Service to America) for the State of Texas, he brought in community organizers to start a “Freedom School” so students could attend informal classes during the walkout. Sites were established throughout the community and the word went out that volunteer teachers were desperately needed in Uvalde, Texas.

Jose Uriegas, students from The University of Texas at Austin, St. Edwards University, and other institutions of higher education made the trek to Uvalde to teach these classes. [11]

Uriegas also helped Maria Garcia organize a community kitchen to feed the students during the walkout. Food donations poured in from around the state. Political activist Ben Reyes from Houston, Texas, personally brought vehicles filled with food. Aurelio Montemayor, one of the community organizers who came up from the Rio Grande Valley, helped the students counter the local media coverage by organizing a newsletter called the Chicano Times.

Several walkout students accepted the challenge of producing the publication and took on roles as editor, copy editors, writers and translators. Montemayor also helped organize a teatro to put on plays during the many walkout meetings and rallies that were held in the old parish hall. The teatro members would pick themes and use dramatic interpretations and music to communicate their own views of the events that were unfolding in Uvalde.

Every day, about an hour before the public schools dismissed students for the day, hundreds of boycotting students would be transported by Mr. Jesus Morales’ field trucks to a different school to conduct picket line duty. As students marched up and down and around different schools, a sense of public solidarity re-enforced the student’s determination to make the walkout a success. But the marches and picket lines caused great consternation among those in the Anglo community. Many felt embarrassed and mad at how the Mexican American community had “failed to understand” their place in the community and were now getting out of control.

The Arrival of the Texas Rangers

Leading a contingent of about twenty-five (25) Texas Rangers was the infamous Captain Alfred Y. Allee, the head of Company “D” based in Carrizo Springs, Texas. A Texas Ranger since 1933, this was the same Captain Allee who had helped to crush the United Farm Workers melon strike down in the Rio Grande Valley at La Casita Farms in 1967. [12] And it was the same Captain Allee who appeared before the United States Civil Rights Commission in San Antonio in 1968 to answer questions from Commissioners about the beatings he personally administered during an incident in the Valley. [13]

Not only did Captain Allee bring his reputation to Uvalde, he also brought two Department of Public Safety Huey helicopters which were flown at low altitudes over the town. It was also from these helicopters that reconnaissance photos were taken to help law enforcement officials on the ground identify the participants in the walkout. [14] Tony Diaz, a recently returned soldier from Viet Nam, commented that that every time he heard those helicopters, he felt as though he were back in Nam.

Probably the most poignant signal the Texas Rangers delivered with their presence in Uvalde was when they stood on the roof tops of buildings with loaded rifles during school board meetings on Getty Street.

Elvia Perez recalls: I remember Gabriel Tafolla and Jose Uriegas were some of the main organizers, but I didn’t know the nuts and bolts of it. I don’t remember being included in major decision -making. But what I do remember, and it is clear as a bell. I remember being included with Olga Rodriquez and several others when we went to address the school board. And it was a shocker that we were seen as radicals and agitators. And I remember that, gosh, this is not who I am. I was awarded the citizenship award last year as a junior. The Optimist Club recognized me as a good citizen. And all of a sudden, I am a radical and an agitator? I remember we were walking into that building, the little building where the school board met and looking up the barrel of a Texas Ranger’s rifle. They were on the roof with guns pointed down at us.

Interviewer Reina Olivas: How did that make you feel?

That was harsh. I thought, “Gosh, this is America. We have the right as citizens to speak up and to speak out.” And I didn’t understand it. That is the one thing that I remember very, very clearly. It was painful. And we were not asking for anything radical, we were just asking for things for the kids. The bilingual program had begun in the state and we felt that wow, that would be a good thing for the kids to have support learning English as they made the transition. It is a difficult transition to make. We wanted more Hispanic teachers, more Hispanic administrators. The town was 50/50 (Anglo-Mexican American) why couldn’t the schools reflect that? [15]

The Walkout Caused Divisions in the Mexican American Community

It was not only the Anglos who were upset about the walkout. There were Mexican Americans in the community who also did not approve of the boycott. Some had worked for years to establish cordial relationships with Anglos in the community and now the walkout was forcing them to defend and declare their loyalties. All those cups of coffee and polite conversations were being tested by the civil disobedience of the walkout students. People wanted to know whose side were you on.

The Ybarra family, who owned a local dry-cleaning business in town, were particularly torn by the walkout. The son, David, was a sophomore at Uvalde High School. The daughter, Isabel, was in her junior year. David was against the walkout. Isabel was in favor of the walkout and participated in the picket lines. According to the mom, heated arguments about the merits of the walkout often filled the home at dinner time. [16]

The Flores family also demonstrated similar reservations about the walkout. Bart Flores, a junior at Uvalde High School, shared the following reflection in an interview in 2017.

Santos: Were your parents supportive of your decision to participate?

Bart: Yes. I take it back. My mom did not want me to walkout. My mom said I needed to graduate, that had to happen. I told her. . . “I will graduate. I will do it somehow.” But my dad had a different opinion. He knew what was happening in Crystal City. I remember him saying, “No mijo, estos gringos ya tienen mucho poder. Han tenido mucho poder todo estos años.” 17

Bart Flores, a junior at Uvalde High School, recalls in an interview conducted in 2017, the discussion his family had regarding their position on the walkout:

Giving Context to the Walkout

Adding to the commotion, excitement and shock of the Uvalde school walkout was the recent victory of the students in Crystal City, Texas who had staged their own walkout a few months earlier. They too had a list of demands and the school district, after a few weeks of walkout activity, agreed to most of the items on the list. [18] The students in Uvalde knew about the victory in Crystal City and believed if it could happen there, it could happen in Uvalde. But there was something bigger that came out of Crystal City. It was the founding of a political party called the Raza Unida Party.

In early April of 1970, (before the Uvalde walkout started) there were school board elections in Crystal City (this refers to Crystal City II, as distinguished from Crystal City I, which had occurred some eight previous) and while they were non- partisan, the Raza Unida Party candidates won enough seats to take over the school board. A few days later, on April 7th, the City of Crystal City held municipal elections and again, the Raza Unida Party scored huge electoral victories. The news coverage from the San Antonio, Texas newspapers pressured to get the Uvalde walkout under control and over with began to increase. The local draft board began obtaining a list of those students who were participating in the walkout and reclassified them from 4F to 1A which meant they were immediately eligible to be drafted. At the time the war in Viet Nam was going on and induction into the military almost guaranteed deployment to jungles of South East Asia. During the Vietnam War, a total of 10 servicemen from Uvalde were killed. All ten were Mexican American. [19] It was not lost on the community what the draft board was up to and how it operated. Going to military funerals of friends and relatives tends to leave a permanent impression upon people who live in a small community.

Running from Ruth Webb

In my own case, I was informed during the walkout that my name had been submitted to the local draft board. At the time of the walkout, I was seventeen (17) years old. I don’t know why my name was submitted, other than the obvious. Together with Bart Flores, I went down to the draft board to question why my name had gone in. The head of the draft board, Ruth Webb, did not have an answer but she did have an attitude. After arguing with her for several minutes that she should not have my name until I am 18, her final words to me were, “You just wait young man. I am going to get you and you can say hello to Viet Nam!” Well, I didn’t wait. I was going to turn 18 in a few days on May 15th. It was now May 12th. I decided that I needed to leave town and register for the draft somewhere else. I talked two of friends into going with me to California to register. At the time I felt I didn’t have any business killing people I didn’t know.

MAPA vs. GAPA

During the third week of the walkout, (April 26th, 1970 to May 2nd, 1970) the parents of boycotting students decided to form MAPA (Mexican American Parents Association) They wanted to play a formal role in the school walkout and negotiations. Frances Ybarra was elected the first president of the group. MAPA helped to conduct the parent meetings and accompanied the students on the picket lines around the schools. In response to the formation of MAPA, the Anglo community, with the leadership of Gordon Erkfritz, a local community activist, organized a group called GAPA (German American Parents Association) Everywhere that MAPA went, GAPA would go. When Frances Ybarra, representing MAPA, would sign up to address the school board, Gordon Erkfritz, representing GAPA would also sign up. When it was his turn to speak, he would repeat what Ybarra said only he would swap out the word Mexican and substitute the word German. GAPA’s mission was to embarrass and ridicule the parents of the students in the most public way.

According to Olga Rodriquez, one of the officers of MAPA, in an interview with The Voces Project from The University of Texas at Austin conducted on April 16th, 2016, Governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr. also stepped in to try and convince the parents that the school walkout was not a good idea. He and his wife, Janey, invited a group of parents to the First State Bank in Uvalde for a steak dinner and conversation about the merits of the walkout. Olga recalls that a number of them attended the event and were polite, but no one was convinced to abandon their support for the walkout students. [20]

As the walkout entered the fourth and fifth weeks, it became increasingly clear that the seniors who were participating in the walkout would not be graduating. A few of them tried to transfer to neighboring school districts like Crystal City and Del Rio, but were not successful. According to Concha Vasquez, a local dance promoter and community activist, one of her employees, Jose “Pepe” Sanchez, who was a senior and had been participating in the walkout, flew into a fit of rage upon learning that he would not be graduating with the Class of 1970. Concha said that Pepe went to the back of the store, got a hammer, went outside, took off his senior ring and proceeded to smash it to bits as he cried in frustration. [21] For a number of people, that high school diploma was their ticket out of life of misery and poverty and that people like Pepe, never got to cash it in.

The End of the Walkout

The school year came to a close on May 21st. The school board had refused to negotiate with the students on the list of 14 demands. As punishment many (approximately 400) were flunked back one year. Many of us were deeply embarrassed by this outcome. Most of the seniors who participated in the walkout left town. Some went back up North to Minnesota and Wisconsin where they had once worked as farm workers. Other students joined the military. Some went to San Antonio and managed to get into college. And others just disappeared into society. George Garza, the schoolteacher we started the walkout for, ended up losing his job and he too left the state. MAPA continued to engage the school district on a variety of issues and there was some talk about resuming the walkout in the fall. [22]

The Lawsuits Begin

After the walkout, Genoveva Morales, a mother of 9 children in the Uvalde public schools, was approached by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), and she agreed, to become the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Uvalde Independent School District. The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court on August 6th, 1970, contained five major points and alleged that the Uvalde public schools had engaged in, among other things, systematic discrimination against Mexican Americans.

In June of 1971, Federal Judge John Woods dismissed the lawsuit filed by Genoveva Morales stating that the Uvalde School District had never segregated Mexican American students. MALDEF then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. [23]

In July of 1975, the Fifth Circuit Court reversed the earlier decision against Morales. Now the Uvalde Independent School District was told to come up with another solution or appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The school district chose the latter and In December of 1975 the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. refused to review the decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. 24

The Uvalde school district was ordered to take steps to remedy the situation in the schools and report yearly on their progress. All together there were 28 areas where the district was out of compliance. For the next 40 plus, years, the Uvalde Independent School District became one of a hand full of school districts in the nation that were required to operate under court order. Over the years, as the school district continued to resist and fight MALDEF, it spent millions of dollars trying to defend its practices and the manner of delivering public education in Uvalde, Texas. [25]

With the passage of time, things began to change in Uvalde. More Mexican Americans ran for and began to win elective office including positions on the school board. Students who had participated in the walkout gradually returned to Uvalde and were hired as schoolteachers. The story of the walkout and how the Mexican American population found the courage to stand up and demand change lingered and was retold countless of times at social gatherings, wedding receptions, family reunions and any other place where conversation and history were the order of the day.

In 2002, I completed my studies for a master’s degree in educational administration at Sul Ross State University in Uvalde. On the day of my defense before an academic committee composed of professors, I arrived with prepared summaries of my course work and was ready to answer any questions they might have. Much to my surprise, they had not one question about my studies but instead wanted to talk about the Uvalde walkout. I spent the next two hours fielding questions about what happened in 1970.

In 2008, MALDEF, Genoveva Morales and the Uvalde school board were in court again and signed a “Consent Order” which recognized the strides the school district had made over the years to remedy the discrimination that the Morales lawsuit had alleged. But it was not until 2016 that the school board, now composed of a very different set of members and a friendly superintendent, (Jenneate Ball) decided it was time to bring the lawsuit to a close. The Uvalde school board, under the leadership of Steven Gerdes, ordered the school administration to do whatever was necessary to comply with the court [26] and signed a final agreement with MALDEF and Genoveva Morales. It took 46 years since the start of the Uvalde walkout in 1970, to finally bring this matter to a complete close. Today, in a gesture toward the Hispanic community, the middle school in Uvalde is now named after Mrs. Genoveva Morales.

Today the students attending the Uvalde public schools are the grandchildren of those who participated in the 1970 walkout. Many of those who were part of the Chicano Movement and the struggle to bring about social, political and education change 50 years ago have now passed on. But for those of us who still live, there is still a glimmer of pride in our eye when the subject of the walkout comes up because we know deep in our hearts which side of history we stood on and stood up for during those tumultuous times.

In the 2006, HBO film Walkout, the protagonist Paula Crisostomo, played by Alexa Vega, reflects back on the 1968 blowouts in Los Angles and comments that maybe the students were not successful in bringing about immediate change, but what did change were the students themselves. They were no longer afraid to speak up. They were no longer afraid to stand up and they were no longer to go along to get along. That is how I feel about the 1970 Uvalde walkout when I look back on what we did some 50 years ago.

Note: Attached is a bibliography and list of the 14 Demands

Bibliography

De Leon, Arnoldo, 1974. 1910 Blowout 1910 Style: A Chicano School Boycott in West Texas. Journal title: Texana, Chapter 7 pages 124-140

Gutierrez, Jose Angel, 1999, The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lesson from Cristal.Wisconsin Press

Navarro, Armando, Mexican American Youth Organization, 1995 The University of Texas Press.

Sanchez, Juan O. Master’s Thesis, 1992 Encina: The Uvalde School Walkout

San Miguel, Guadalupe. Let All of Them Take Heed: Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas, 1910-1981 2000, Texas A&M Press.

Uvalde Leader News, various issues,1970 forward

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District School Board minutes, 1970 forward

Gerdes, Steven, President, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees, recorded remarks delivered to Texas Association of School Board members group in Uvalde, Texas. November 16, 2016

List of the 14 Demands – Uvalde School Walkout

  1. It is stated in the United States Constitution that in our country an individual has the freedom to seek justice and his well-being. Therefore, the students who have been participating in this walkout should not be punished or reprimanded in any form or fashion for their just causes which are being demanded.
  2. It is also relevant that the principal of the Robb Elementary School is not capable of holding the position that he has. Therefore, we demand his resignation.
  3. The grade level in Uvalde is very low considering our grade level with the Anglo in our community. Therefore, we see it fit to demand that bilingual education be incorporated into the primary grade curriculum.
  4. It has also been brought to our attention that the contribution of the Mexican-American to this society and culture has not been given proper recognition. Therefore, we also demand that the textbooks be revised as well as teaching methods in order to properly reflect our contribution to the “Anglo” dominated society.
  5. We also see it fit to demand that if any teacher in the system disagrees politically or philosophically with the establishment’s view, that they not be dismissed nor intimidated.;
  6. There have also been complaints by students that they have been ridiculed by their teachers because of their language barrier and also of their culture. Therefore, we see it fit to demand that every teacher, administrator and member of the staff be educated so that know our language- Spanish- and be able to pronounce our names correctly, understand our history, tradition, and contributions of Mexican- Americans. How can they expect to teach us if they do not know us? We also demand that more Mexican-American teachers be hired.
  7. We want September 16 as a holiday, but if that is not possible, we want an assembly with speakers of our own. We feel that it is a great day in the history of the world because it is the date when the Mexicans were liberated from the harsh rule of Spain. Our ancestors fought in this war, and we owe them tribute because we are Mexicans too.
  8. Being civic-minded citizens, we want to know what the happenings are in our community. We therefore demand the right to have access to all types of literature, and to be able to bring it on campus.
  9. It is also demanded that a course on Chicano education with the full value of full credit be offered in the high school.
  10. Any and all nominations and elections done while the Mexican- Americans were out should be declared invalid.
  11. Since in the last four years only five Mexican-Americans have been chosen to “Who’s Who,” it is plain to see that the prejudice lies with the teachers; we demand that the elections to “Who’s Who” be left to the student body.
  12. We demand a Mexican-American counselor be hired at Uvalde High School and Junior High so the Mexican-American may benefit.
  13. Seeing that the majority of students at Robb Elementary are Mexican American, we demand a Mexican American principal.
  14. All students who participated in the walkout should be allowed to make up work missed with the teachers’

 

Author Note

Alfredo R. Santos c/s was an active member of MAYO in Uvalde, Texas in the 1960s and participated in the 1970 Uvalde Public School Walkout. He did not graduate from high school and after the walkout went to California. In the fall of 1970, he enrolled at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California and became involved in journalism and the United Farm Workers Union of America. He graduated in June of 1972 with an A.A. and transferred to the University of California-Berkeley where he majored in economics. After receiving his A.B. he went to work full time for the UFW as a labor organizer in Watsonville, California. He returned to Texas in 1977 and began the research work on the forthcoming book, The Divided Community: Walk- out in Uvalde, Texas from which this article was taken.

End Notes:

  1. The Mexican American Youth Organization was a militant student group founded in 1967 in San Antonio, Texas.
  2. Armando Navarro, Mexican American Youth Organization-Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas (Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 1995), 117
  3. The Uvalde public school walkout began on April 14th, 1970 at the beginning of second period and lasted until the last day of the school year on May 21st, 1970 at 3:30pm.
  4. Arnoldo De Leon. Blowout 1910 Style A Chicano School Boycott in West Texas This chapter was originally published in the journal Texana 12, no. 2 (1974): 124–40. 102 Chapter 7
  5. Charles Boycott. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  6. Josue Garza was 31 years old and had been teaching in the Uvalde Independent School District for the past five years.
  7. Uvalde Leader News. April, 17, 1970 page 1
  8. Interview with Diana Acosta Santos. 2009. Austin, Texas
  9. Letter to the Editor, Uvalde Leader News. April 23, 1970
  10. Review of Uvalde High School yearbooks.
  11. Interview with Arturo Alonzo, Austin, Texas 2019
  12. United Farm Workers Program 2016. La Marcha, www.farmworkers2016.wordpress.com
  13. United States Civil Rights Commission Hearing. 1968. San Antonio, Texas
  14. The markings on the back of photos taken during the walkout indicate that students were being identified by law enforcement.
  15. Interview with The Voces Oral History Project at The University of Texas at Austin, April 16th, 2016 in Uvalde, Texas
  16. Unrecorded conversation with Mrs. Ybarra and Alfredo Santos c/s 1998 Uvalde, Texas.
  17. Interview with Bart Flores, May 24, 2017 in Austin, Texas
  18. Jose Angel Gutierrez. The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal. 1999, University of Wisconsin Press
  19. National Archives, Military Records, Vietnam War casualties
  20. Interview with Olga Rodriquez, April 16th, 2016 in Uvalde, Texas for the Voces Project, The University of Texas at Austin.
  21. Unrecorded conversation with Concha Vasquez in 2000 and corroborated with Jose “Pepe” Sanchez in 2017.
  22. Newspaper article San Antonio Express News, August 1970 page 1
  23. Juan Sanchez. Master’s thesis 1992, Sul Ross State University, page 115
  24. Juan Sanchez, Master’s thesis 1992, Sul Ross State University, pages 128, 129
  25. Recorded talk given by Steven Gerdes, Uvalde Consolidates Independent School
  26. District Board President on November 19th, 2016 at Morales Junior High School in Uvalde, Texas.

PUBLISHER’S NOTICE

The September 2021 edition of IberoAzltan will be our ninth. We had projected publication of six editions which would be focused primarily on an interview project which we began in 2017, called the Chicana/o Legacy Project. The interest in and support for IberoAztlan was Unexpected.

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