1969 Denver School Walkout Helped Launch Chicano Movement

By Sanchez, Hayley | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), March 23, 2019 | Go to article overview

1969 Denver School Walkout Helped Launch Chicano Movement


Sanchez, Hayley, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO)


DENVER — The sound of student laughter and conversation in the halls of Denver's West High School has a distinct timbre. Teenagers dash between classes and chat in a mix of Spanish and English.

Mia Martinez-Lopez, one of three Latina educational leaders at the multi-school campus, said there can always be improvements, but the progress made in terms of meeting students' needs shouldn't be overlooked. The use of all languages is encouraged. In fact, her entire office staff is bilingual — sometimes even trilingual.

"We have other Latino assistant principals," she said. "A lot more teachers of color."

Students don't just see themselves reflected in their teachers, but in what they learn too. Martinez-Lopez said they "offer Hispanic-American lit classes. We have Chicano studies."

This might seem commonplace in a modern classroom, but this is West High. The scene here was far different 50 years ago.

In 1969, students were shamed by teachers if they spoke Spanish. Classes didn't teach Chicano history or culture and a social studies teacher, Harry B. Shafer, intentionally mispronounced students' names.

The teacher reportedly told students, "If you eat Mexican food, you'll look like a Mexican" and "Spanish students are stupid because their parents are stupid."

The Denver Post reported that students addressed their concerns with the administration, but weeks went by and nothing was done. Frustrations grew and it came to a head with a student walkout to protest discrimination.

Martinez-Lopez wasn't even born then, but she knows the story well — because her father Emanuel Martinez was there.

"We learned about all the events of The Movement back when we were kids," she said. "My dad would tell stories about what happened on that day. He had lots of stories about specific students and things he saw and the police brutality that was going on at the time."

At 21, Emanuel Martinez was a member of the Crusade for Justice, a Denver group that fought for Chicano rights. Founded by Denver activist Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who coined the term Chicano, the Crusade helped spark a national movement. The FBI, and many others, considered the group to be radical, so when they joined the student protests, police were ready.

On March 20, 1969, a few hundred students left West and crossed Elati Street to demonstrate at Sunken Gardens Park. Martinez was there with other members of the Crusade. Students then marched three blocks south to the now-defunct Baker Junior High, where Martinez said they rallied more students and headed back to West.

"By the time we got there, the police were already there in riot gear and ready for us with gas masks," he said. "The whole thing."

Thirty officers ordered demonstrators to leave school grounds and go back to Sunken Gardens.

Nita Gonzales, "Corky" Gonzales' daughter and 18 at the time, participated in the walkout. She said she and some students were at the top of the stairs at the entrance of West when police began to push everyone back.

"Students started tumbling over," she said. "They were grabbing me by my hair, by my shirts and coats and then my dad and the other adults got upset and tried to intervene and as a result, they were getting beat up."

Fights broke out between officers and demonstrators, according to news accounts. Police used pepper spray to contain the violence.

Twenty-six were arrested, including Martinez, a news photographer and 11 juveniles. At least two were hospitalized, including a police officer. Martinez said he was handcuffed in the back of a police van and watched several officers struggle to put a teenage girl inside.

"They brought in a girl who was like... took about three or four policemen to get her in because she was wild," he said.

Her ankle got caught in the door and police kept pushing on it, trying to get her inside, he said. Police doused everyone in the wagon with pepper spray from a hole in the roof. …

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