The unflattering message in "Stand and Deliver," last year's popular film, was that only a super-teacher can make Latinos learn. Jaime Escalante, the movie's protagonist, was that teacher.
There are other Latino teachers whose dedication to excellence equals Escalante's, but their lives have not caught Hollywood's attention. Many Chicanos have long waited for "The Sal Castro Story." A teacher in Los Angeles schools for 30 years, Castro has long urged his students to pressure school administrators to stand and deliver.
Both Castro and Escalante are charismatic. But while Escalante's focus is a limited, select group of calculus students, Castro's is the Latino community, which he seeks to unify into the Big Union. Ironically, Castro's unheralded approach--at least in the mainstream media--may do more for Latino education than Escalante's much-publicized classroom heroics.
Castro the agitator, of course, is not a star in the Los Angeles Unified School District's stable of teachers. Indeed, his rebelliousness almost cost him his credential. And he's certainly had his share of transfers.
In 1963, Castro got into trouble when he encouraged Chicano students at Belmont High School to take over the student government. Although a majority, Chicanos did not hold a single student-body office. So Castro urged the Chicano students to hold a convention and nominate a slate of candidates. To conceal its strategy from school administrators, the Tortilla Movement, as Castro called it, became TM.
Taking their cue from John F. Kennedy when he spoke to Mexican American audiences, TM candidates concluded their speeches in Spanish. When student-body elections rolled around, TM candidates swept all offices, except president. That earned Castro a quick transfer to Lincoln High.
Nearly 30 years later, Castro is still pushing his Tortilla Movement. Last month, Castro was at Camp Hess Kramer, near Malibu, as one host of a youth leadership conference sponsored by the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee. About 125 Latino senior-high students attended. The message: "You ain't no Hispanic. You're a Chicano, Mexicano, Salvadoran, Guatemateco--and right on!" A parade of successful role models told the kids, "Si se puede" ("It can be done.)"
The Camp Hess Kramer leadership conference was hatched at the 20-year reunion of the leaders and supporters of the 1968 Chicano student walkouts at five Eastside high schools. Realizing that many of their demands remained unmet, the participants resurrected the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee, formed after the '68 walkouts to lobby for student demands.
Camp Hess Kramer is of tremendous symbolic value to the '68 generation. In 1963, the County Human Relations Commission had initiated annual Mexican American leadership conferences at the camp. The meetings continued until shortly after the Eastside walkouts, when then-Los Angeles District Attorney Evelle Younger filed misdemeanor conspiracy charges against Castro and 12 others, claiming the schools' protest had been planned at Camp Hess Kramer.
What went on at Camp Hess Kramer may indeed have contributed to 20,000 Latino students leaving school en masse. Certainly, the student leaders' expectations had been raised by the feelings of pride that the camp's program of cultural awareness had instilled in them.
In returning to Camp Hess Kramer, Castro and the '68 leadership are picking up where they left off 20 years ago. S i se puede is one solution to the Latino dropout problem, one that many Latinos prefer to the current school-board policy of skimming off the cream, sending the brightest to magnet programs or relying on super-teachers. But Castro's main point is that Latinos must say "I am a Chicano, Mexicano, Central American, whatever"--and be proud. They must first believe they are a chosen people before they can demand quality from themselves and the institutions that serve them. A Big Union bound by feelings of pride, rather than individual attention, is what's needed to ensure quality education for Latinos.