In 1968, as a senior attending high school in East Los Angeles, I grew tired of substandard education and a lack of opportunities afforded to Mexican-American students, so I helped lead a series of walkouts to demand educational reform and social justice for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
Fittingly, my high school was named after our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin in Kentucky—a place I would become acquainted with.
I recently returned to my home in East Los Angeles after a seven-day visit to Lexington, Kentucky, where I shared stories about my teacher, Sal Castro, and the Latino student walkouts nearly 50 years ago.
As a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles, Sal exposed us to the inequities we experienced in our schools. As low-income students, we didn’t have access to college preparatory classes, many of us were forced to take remedial and shop classes, and if our language-biased test scores were too low, we were labeled academically mentally retarded.
Sal Castro grew up under similar conditions in 1940s and ’50s Los Angeles. He saw his father deported to Mexico as a child. This experience, compounded with other inequities, drove him to dedicate his life to the pursuit of justice until his death in 2013.
Sal Castro is regarded as the original Chicano teacher advocating for social justice. He took his stories and his teachings to the communities and schools of Lexington, Kentucky. Why the Bluegrass State? He went there to be with Latino students who live, study and dream there. And they invited their hero to visit.
The Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp (LLCEC) was created and modeled after Sal’s Chicano Youth Leadership Conference, the original student conference created to support and motivate young Latinos to go to and graduate from college, which has been held at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu since 1963.
LLCEC was in its third year when its project director Erin Howard made a phone call to Sal Castro’s office. She was shocked when he answered the phone and even more shocked when he agreed to visit Kentucky after she invited him.
Carrying the Torch
Sal’s health made it difficult for him to continue visiting Kentucky. In 2008, I was blessed to be invited in his absence. Talk about big shoes to fill and a hard act to follow! I felt it was important to continue the relationships and friendships that Sal Castro and Erin Howard began to nurture.
I was able to stay for a week at the camp, sleeping alongside the students in the dormitories of the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. Two weeks earlier I had celebrated my 65th birthday, but at the camp I needed to turn the clock back 47 years to keep up with them. I did not hit my pillow until 2:30 a.m. each night. We talked, joked, laughed and cried together. I heard stories of courage, stories of fear, stories of sacrifices and stories of gratitude for their parents.
Eighty percent of campers attending this year’s LLCEC are DREAMers, students who were brought to the United States illegally but have spent most of their education and lives here.
There are also no guarantees that the LLCEC will be able to continue one year to the next. Unlike similar camps and conferences in California, the Kentucky project gets almost no corporate sponsorship or assistance. The very next day after the camp ends and participants have left their dormitories, Erin and her staff begin the planning and fundraising for next year’s camp.
A Little Recognition
But this year their hard work, commitment and positive impact on young Latino students did not go unnoticed. The Obama administration took interest and on July 30, the camp received a visit from Alejandra Ceja, director of the White House Initiative for the Education Excellence of Hispanics. Ms. Ceja heard stories of challenges and triumphs from these young children of immigrants, and they were able to hear her story as a child of immigrants. I sat in on the scheduled roundtable discussion and had a positive discussion with the director. I think it helped a little that we are both from the Eastside area of Los Angeles.
I will return next year to Lexington not just to continue Sal Castro’s legacy, but to visit students who are the age I was when I joined Mr. Castro in the walkouts. I’m so honored when they call me their “abuelito,” or grandfather. It’s the ultimate sign of respect.
I look forward to going back to be with my Kentucky “nietas and nietos” and I invite you to join me. They don’t ask for it, but they can use our support. Sal felt it was important to visit. Alejandra Ceja, too. You may not be able to travel to Lexington, but you can visit the Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp website.
They live in a place where their existence is humble. It is probably not a coincidence that one of our greatest presidents was born, humbly, in a log cabin in Kentucky.