By Marco Poggio
In the spring of 1968, major demonstrations against the Vietnam war, poverty and racial discrimination rocked major U.S. cities, as did riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. But they didn’t occur in San Antonio.
In March, in East Los Angeles, nearly 22,000 Chicano students walked out of schools to protest a demeaning curriculum designed to channel Mexican-Americans into the labor force rather than college — a single wave of unrest amid that year’s high tide of social upheaval.
Weeks later, that wave hit San Antonio hard, as students at several schools, particularly Lanier and Edgewood high schools, rose against what they described as systemic racial prejudice.
Lanier students, chafing at a curriculum that pushed them toward manual labor and away from college, endured threats and abuse to win major changes that April. Community and political leaders helped avoid a planned walkout there, but in May, about 400 Edgewood students left the campus to protest broken-down facilities and inadequate funding. They, too, won changes.
“We didn’t have hot water. Windows were broken,” said Richard Herrera, then a junior there. “Books were old, walls were dingy and there was no air conditioning.”
Herrera joined others on May 16 in waiting for the 10 a.m. bell. At the signal, his teacher tried to block the door, saying, “I know what you guys are up to. Nobody is walking out of my class.”
But they did, assembling outside the cafeteria, grabbing picket signs left there by organizers and marching to the Edgewood Independent School District main office, blocks away, Herrera said. They were joined by a few Escobar Junior High School students, he said.
“The war was on our mind — 57 guys that had gotten killed in Vietnam already. They were sitting next to us, we knew them,” said Manuel Garza, 64, then a junior.
Chicanos were dying as soldiers but back home weren’t allowed to speak Spanish anywhere on campus, he said.
“By the time this broke out, we had been organizing for about a year,” said Mario Compeán, an Edgewood graduate who was attending St. Mary’s University. When Compeán, who grew up as a “veteran cotton picker,” aspired to go to college, an Edgewood adviser had told him “You can’t go. You don’t have what it takes.”
Compeán understood that to mean his race. As a St. Mary’s graduate, he helped form the Mexican American Youth Organization, which evolved into a political party, La Raza Unida, championing educational opportunity along with civic inclusion and economic empowerment in the 1960s and 1970s.
“That was very important to us,” said Ignacio “Nacho” Perez, 70, also a founding member of MAYO who helped orchestrate the walkout while at St. Mary’s.
The marchers on 34th Street demanded coursework besides vocational training, better facilities, and the removal of the district superintendent, Bennie Steinhauser, whom they accused of indifference toward the students’ conditions.
By summer’s end, Steinhauser had been replaced. The school began offering college preparatory courses and students were no longer punished for speaking Spanish. The building was refurbished. Garza, who was in the school band, recalled going to a music store with a new band director to buy uniforms and instruments.
Lanier students in the San Antonio Independent School District were called Voks from the word “vocational.” They were offered only basic courses in English and math — but no physics or chemistry, former students recalled. Boys were taught auto mechanics, carpentry or printing. Girls learned how to cook, sew and type.
A junior named Homer Garcia brought up those issues at a student council meeting in April 1968, to which a school administrator responded “shut up and sit down.” Garcia, now 64, said he respectfully made his case but was threatened with expulsion along with a handful of other students who tried to defend him.
“The rest of the afternoon was spent in interrogations. They would not let me go to the restroom, they would not let me sit down. They were throwing questions at me,” Garcia recalled. He was even asked if “communists were involved.” In the days that followed, members of his family were harassed at work, he said.
Garcia got a letter informing him he was expelled, and it enraged other students. “We thought it was unfair. We were not going to put up with this,” said Edgar Lozano, 64, then a junior, who with others began to organize a walkout, inspired by the events in California.
“It was high stakes. It was a lot of nervousness,” because nobody wanted to be expelled, especially seniors who were weeks away from graduation, he said.
Students put together a list of demands and engaged elected officials.
“They came to me to ask for support and I decided to meet with them,” said Joe Bernal, 88, then a state senator who had grown up on the West Side and had attended Lanier. “I told them, ‘If you want to make this work, you’re going to have to have your parents behind you.’”
Students drew news coverage with a series of meetings at a community center. About 30 attended the first one, the Express-News reported. Two days later, it was 700, including parents, civic and religious leaders and activists.
After days of negotiation, the SAISD superintendent announced changes, Lozano said. Lanier would get college preparatory courses. Students could speak Spanish. Garcia was allowed back. He went on to earn a government degree at The University of Texas at Austin and two master’s degrees and a doctorate in sociology at Yale.
Lozano studied economics at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1974.
Edgewood High School closed in 1996. But the protest had a wider impact, leading to the creation of the Edgewood District Concerned Parents Association, whose class action lawsuit was the first of several to challenge Texas education funding policy through the decades.
Funding equity is still before the courts. But bilingual education is available throughout Texas. And all public school districts consider it a central goal to prepare any student for college who wants to attend.