MOVIE producers don't show up every day on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. So it's surprising how little fuss the locals make when actor-director Edward James Olmos and his production team arrive one recent morning to scout locations for the upcoming HBO film "Walkout," a dramatization of the seminal 1968 Chicano student protests at high schools on L.A.'s Eastside.
At one point, a dozen filmmakers cram into tiny Jesse's Barber Shop, which dates to the period and will serve to set a barrio scene during the movie's opening. They confer about camera angles and set decor as barbers keep clipping and a tropical oldie-but-goodie plays on a small radio.
The director of photography frames a possible shot with his hands, panning down from a JFK portrait high on a wall to the front window advertising regular cuts for six bucks. The set designer scribbles her observations in a notebook while an artist drafts an instant sketch of a sidewalk candy stand Olmos wants built overnight and placed just outside the door. Make sure, says the director, that it has a newspaper rack with headlines from that tumultuous time, the year of the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations.
Customers and passersby just stare as the team bustles back and forth, spilling onto the sidewalk and then into the busy thoroughfare, formerly Brooklyn Avenue. The moviemakers worry about possible 1960s anachronisms. Would a barrio barber shop at the time hire a female stylist like the one working at one of Jesse's five chairs? Was the word "unisex" already in use? Before the crew breaks for lunch, Olmos is finally approached by a fan, one of the barber's silent customers sporting a newly shaved head. The young man accompanied by his sister poses for a sidewalk snapshot with the actor and activist.
He later identifies himself as Sergio Arellano, a 1999 graduate of Wilson High School, one of the schools targeted by demonstrators. Like many of his generation, he says he had never heard of the walkouts until a crew member told him what the film was about.
Asked about his own education, Arellano, 24, echoes one of the major complaints of the student protests three decades earlier: A counselor had once told him he'd never be college material.
"There was no guidance," says Arellano, who holds a community college degree in criminal justice and eventually wants to become a high school teacher. "If you were at the top of your class, they paid attention to you. If you were somewhere in the middle, you were ignored."
Olmos doesn't hear the fan's lament. But the persistent educational problems faced by Latino students is one reason he wanted to make this film -- scheduled to air March 18 -- about events that for most people remain lost in L.A. history.
"The dropout rate is higher than it was when these walkouts took place," says Olmos, citing recent (and disputed) statistics that have stirred new debates about the quality of education here, especially for ethnic minorities. "That's why we're making this movie. We're hoping that the kids will walk out again."
The 1968 school protests seemed to explode suddenly within a community commonly referred to in those days as the sleeping giant because of its size and relative political passivity. Until then, the crusade for Mexican American civil rights was largely limited to the rural struggles of farm workers led by Cesar Chavez. The walkouts served as the community's urban battle cry. For Mexican Americans, historians say, the student protest was the shot heard across the Southwest.
Many date the modern Chicano movement to that first week of March when thousands of teenagers made a dramatic case for better schools. Their mostly peaceful protests prompted parents and neighbors to rally to their support and prodded school officials to take action. They also inspired a generation of Chicano activists who went on to undertake an array of movement causes, from underrepresentation at universities to over-representation on the battlefields of Vietnam.
The walkouts also left a legacy of personal accomplishment among their participants, many of whom went on to successful careers in politics, academia and the arts. They include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who walked out from Cathedral High, and award-winning filmmaker Moctesuma Esparza, who was indicted for his role in organizing the walkouts and is now executive producer of HBO's film about the protests.
Targeted by police and punished by their principals, student organizers lived through "crucible moments" comparable to combat, says Esparza, now 56. The experience helped forge their remarkable future success.
"Why? Because we lost our fear," the producer says. "Because we saw that we could get results. Because we saw that we could achieve something and have power in our lives."
Long in the planning