What the Edcouch-Elsa walkout of 1968 can teach us today

On Nov. 9, more than a hundred students took part in the “Solidarity Walkout” at the UT-RGV campus in Edinburg, as documented and undocumented students demanded that Congress pass a clean Dream Act. The demonstration took place the same week as the most famous walkout that’s ever taken place in Rio Grande Valley: the Edcouch-Elsa Walkout.

It was 49 years ago when the brave students of the Delta Area walked out of their classrooms for what would become known as the Edcouch-Elsa Walkout of 1968.

Courtesy of Adan Alfonso Perales

1967

Lupe Saenz was starting to see changes around him from his fellow students right before he graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School in 1967.

“It was around the Civil Rights movement. We had that here too,” Saenz said. “Tony Orendain, the farm workers union, habia una organization que se llamaba Vista Volunteers. They were not starting a problem, they were opening up our eyes…We became aware of the issues and how the issues affected our decisions for the future. How it was hurting some of us.”

For Saenz himself, the realization that things were unjust didn’t happen overnight. For years he thought that was just “the way things are.”  

“During that time, we never thought there was anything wrong with the way we were treated,” Saenz remembers thinking that during his childhood. “[But] we had an English teacher que los decia, ‘You guys don’t see anything wrong with that? Look. We just had a Student Council election, look at all the students [that got elected], they are all white’…We never thought about it, que we outnumbered the white people ten to one. How come they have all the posts and everything?”

Saenz graduated the year before the walkout and went to Vietnam. “We were on the verge of change.” He points to his late brother Freddy Saenz and his good friend Eduardo “Eddy” Gonzalez, who was a 16-year-old Junior, as two people who helped move things forward the following year at Edcouch-Elsa High School in 1968.  

Courtesy of Adan Alfonso Perales

1968

Gonzalez started to notice the widespread issues in his school district and community when he was in the 6th grade. There was a long list of problems that were affecting the Mexican and Mexican-American students at the time, but one issue that both Gonzalez and Saenz point to is the actions of one white counselor.

“She asked me what I planned to do after I graduated from high school,” said Gonzalez, when remembering about this particular counselor. “A lot of my friends can tell you the same story. I told her, ‘Well I’m going to go to college.’ She asked, ‘Why are you going to do that?’”

Gonzalez remembers the counselor trying to dissuade him from going to college and pushing him towards going to trade school. Saenz recalls her pushing him and his friends to go into the military.

“Yet all the white kids were going to college, with scholarships,” Saenz said. “That counselor did a lot of damage to a lot of us in high school, a lot of the Mexicanos because she didn’t care about us, she only cared about the white kids.”

The counselor was just one example of the type of discrimination Mexican and Mexican-American students faced at Edcouch-Elsa High School.

“Lots of discrimination, discrimination against the Hispanics,” said Gonzalez. “Back in those days we [in Edcouch-Elsa] were 85% Hispanic and 15% Anglo, and the Anglos controlled everything. From the economy, from the jobs, the good jobs. At the schools, the principals, the administration, the teachers were all Anglo…They were very blatant. They ruled and they knew they could do whatever they wanted to do with that [power].”

Another thing that would happen was the punishment the Mexican and Mexican-American students received when they spoke a word of Spanish on school premises.

“We would get whipped and expelled because of that,” Gonzalez remembers.

This was something that was happening throughout the Valley. In the nearby city of Edinburg, during the exact same time period of the late 1960s, Tejano music legend Roberto Pulido told me once about how he faced abuse from teachers for speaking Spanish in school.

“I used to get paddled [at school] because I didn’t know how to speak English,” Pulido said when I interviewed him about his life in 2014.  

The racism and discrimination would take a major toll on Gonzalez and the way he viewed his identity.

“One time I went home and I was crying, and [my mom] asked me what the problem was,” Gonzalez said. “I said, ‘You know what, I wish I had been born an Anglo.’ Of course, that was dumb of me to think that because I didn’t know any better. But those were the things that were happening. They were making us feel inferior.”

Gonzalez says that at that point, he and the students around him, “got sick of it.”

Courtesy of Adan Alfonso Perales

The Demands

Soon Xavier Ramirez, who currently lives in Kansas and who I couldn’t get in touch with for this story, started organizing a coalition of students that was led by him, Gonzalez, Mirtala Villarreal, and Raul Arispe. Gonzalez tells me it was Ramirez who led the group and took charge in talking with students about what was going on. Jesus ‘Chuy’ Ramirez is someone who also played a role, helping the students organize, according to Gonzalez.

“Chuy was a real young guy when he came in,” Gonzalez said of the well-known attorney from San Juan. “He was a very smart individual. He knew how to organize. He helped us.”

This student coalition created a list of demands and presented it at a board meeting and then to Edcouch-Elsa High School Principal Melvin Pipkin. This is what the students were asking for, preserved thanks to Edcouch-Elsa historian Adan Alfonso Perales:

“LIST OF DEMANDS

We, the student body of Edcouch-Elsa Junior and Senior High School, demand of the officials and administrators:

1. That no disciplinary action be taken against any student or teacher that has taken part in this movement and that all suspended students and teachers be reinstated to their previous post or office and that any mention of such action omitted from school records. Also all intimidations should stop,

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2. That no threats, intimidation or penalties be made against any student by teachers or administrators for membership or attendance of meetings of any club or organization outside of school.

3. That the students be allowed to select their own candidates for Student Council — it should be the students Student Council.

4. That excessive and unfair penalties and punishments stop being given students for minor infractions or completely ridiculous reasons, for example:

a) student suspended three days for failure to keep appointment with teacher after school.

b) student suspended for three days for failing to stand at school pep rally!

c) if something (shorts, tennis shoes,) are stolen from lockers the students are punished (paddled or sent to do manual labor) for not being able to suit up!

Likewise, that due process be followed in cases of suspension or expulsion of students, that is, that a student be given opportunity to defend himself and that evidence be presented to both administrators and parents. Also no paddling should be given student until an explanation for punishment be given to parents if students request such explanation.

5. That no teacher or administrator shall use profanity or abusive language in presence of students and in no case shall any teacher or administrator lay a hand on a student.

6. That, in the case of tardy or absent students, the students be allowed to re-enter class and no points taken off until his excuse is verified or not. Students should not be kept out of class till parents call school.

7. That either the price of the cafeteria lunch be lowered to a more reasonable price or that more and better foods be served.

8. That, as Chicano students, we be allowed to speak our mother tongue, Spanish, on school premises without being subjected to humiliating or unjust penalties,

9. That courses be introduced, as a regular part of the curriculum, to show the contributions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans to this state and region. For instance, factual accounts of the history of the Southwest and Texas, courses in Mexican history and culture. Also, that qualified, certified teachers be hired to teach these courses.

10. That all college preparatory courses be signaled out for students by time they enter high school.

11. That more effective counseling be given students from understanding counselors that are able to relate to students. Present student-counselor ratio is too great, we need more counselors. Likewise, more assemblies on career opportunities, availability of scholarships’, grants, loans, college entrance requirements, etc.

12. Finally that the blatant discrimination against the Mexican American students in this school stop immediately. We demand Justice.

13. That regulations for “passes” be set down clearly and defined so that no
question remains as to when passes are needed or not. The present system, or lack of it, is ridiculous.

14. That special attention be given the situation a great number of Edcouch-Elsa students find themselves in — that is, they are migrant workers.

a) Student choices of subjects in spring registration be respected and adopted in the fall term, these subject forms are often disregarded.

b) Migrants leave school early, they take part in an accelerated program advance tests are supposed to be given before they leave. Often teachers do not let migrants take tests or do not send tests to students up north after them. All tests should be given to migrant students before they leave.

15. That school facilities be improved, renovated, replaced or installed where appropriate. For example:

a) Fans – Teachers often use fans only for their own comfort, ignoring students.

b) Heaters – The heaters are for the most part outdated and not in working order. We need new heaters.

c) Restrooms – Some of the restrooms and toilets are not cleaned and inoperable; constantly out of repair.

d) Windows – Fix broken windows.

e) Walls – Repair holes in wall. Give school buildings a face-lifting.

f) How about hot water for the showers.

We want to be proud of our school.

Recommendations

1. Teachers have been driving buses for the district up till-now. We recommend that either students, senior students, or townspeople be hired to fill these positions.

2. We recommend that longer periods of time be given to get to classes between classes. Five minutes would be sufficient.

STUDENT COMMITTEE November 7, 1968”

Courtesy of Adan Alfonso Perales

The Walkout

Reportedly, the demands were met with hostility from the Edcouch-Elsa ISD. Norma R. Cuellar in her document “The EDCOUCH-ELSA WALKOUT” points out: “according to one student [Pipkin] referred to it as ‘a joke’ and had compared it to ‘reading a comic strip.’” The plan then was to move forward with a walkout and to boycott classes at Edcouch-Elsa High School on Nov. 13, 1968.

According to Gonzalez, the signal to walk out was the bell at 10 AM. Hundreds of students started walking out when the bell rung.

“I am as nervous as nervous can be,” Gonzalez remembers in the minutes leading up to 10 AM. “I’m going into the unknown. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We are scared; we’re kids. I’m scared, I’m shaking…I knew I was gonna do it. Once the bell rang, I get up from my desk and I walk out. But I’m shaking. As soon as we go to the parking lot, where we had already agreed to, where we were all going to meet. I’m looking all over the place because there are a lot of people. I was looking for my mother. The instance I saw her, standing underneath a tree, with her arms crossed, I can still see it right now. The minute I saw her, all this fear, all this anxiety, everything I was feeling, just disappeared.”

Seeing his mom there, supporting him and his classmates, meant the world to Gonzalez. He quickly started engaging with the people there and delivering in his role as one of the leaders of this action.

“Right now I’m talking to you about it, and I’m getting emotional thinking of my mom being there that day for me.”

“Rebels or Leaders: The Edcouch-Elsa Walkout” by Estella Villarreal adds the following context: “By refusing to attend classes the students involved said the walkout would ‘hit the school where it hurts,’ by cutting down the average daily attendance on which state funds are allocated.”

“We had no idea the impact we were going to have,” Gonzalez said. “We weren’t doing it to show off. We weren’t doing it to create problems. We felt we were fighting for our rights.”  

Gonzalez says that at first, the administration didn’t know what was going on but then soon started threatening the students, demanding they go back to their classrooms.

“Right away, they were threatening with the worst,” Gonzalez said.

The walkout led to many students being expelled and even a few arrests. According to Cuellar’s research, the following were arrested:

“Artemio Salinas, Homer Trevino, 19, Xavier Ramirez, 17, Freddy Saenz, 16, and Raul Arispe, 17.  Mirtala Villarreal was also arrested but was released immediately. Surety bonds made by Ciro Casares and Joe Longoria of Elsa made their release possible.”

“To this day, if you ask me why they were jailed, I don’t know,” Gonzalez said. “‘Cause all we were doing was marching, standing around, holding up signs. That was it, we were peaceful. But county came and arrested.”

A table from Perales, that appears to be an incomplete and have some typos (for instance, Eddy Gonzalez, how he spells his name, is incorrectly spelled “Eddie Gonzales”) and possible errors has more information about those that participated:

News of what was happening in Edcouch-Elsa spread throughout the Valley, and within a few weeks, it got national attention on CBS News on a broadcast by Walter Cronkite.  

Aftermath

The students that were expelled for the role they played in the walkout had to attend different schools in the meantime. Gonzalez ended up going to Edinburg, while the majority of the students headed west to La Joya ISD.

“Our parents, the first city they went to was Mercedes, and of course, they said no. Then Weslaco, no. Then Donna, no.” La Joya ended up being the city that “opened their arms,” as Gonzalez said, to the students that had no place to go.

A little over a month after the walkout, on December 19, 1968, Cuellar notes: “the school board policy was ruled unconstitutional in a civil suit filed by the parents of five expelled pupils.  At that time, school officials agreed to readmit the pupils when school resumed on January 6 (before, they were to have been admitted until January 21, the beginning of the next semester) and to wipe out the reasons for their expulsion from their school records.  At that same time, U.S. District Judge Reynaldo Garza stated that the school board policy prohibiting demonstrations and boycotts had been unconstitutional.”

Attorney Bob Sanchez was one of the people who fought for the rights of the students during this ordeal.

“He’s the one that represented us,” Gonzalez said. “He never charged us a penny.”

Gonzalez didn’t return to Edcouch-Elsa High School until the following year and graduated from there in 1969. He didn’t really see a change at first, until 1971 when George Salinas and other Latinos and Latinas got prominent positions in Edcouch-Elsa ISD.

Some things from those days remind Gonzalez of what’s going on today with the current political climate.

“It’s like what’s going on with Trump right now,” Gonzalez observed. “I thought that the discrimination was out of the way, but Trump brought it back to life. So what is going on right now, was what was going on back then.”  

Gonzalez wants the youth of today to know how important this story is, and for it to serve as a reminder for them stand up and fight when they see injustice.

“Do not be afraid,” Gonzalez said. “When you believe in something, don’t be afraid to do what is right.”

Thanks to Lupe Saenz, Eddy Gonzalez, Adan Alfonso Perales, Norma R. Cuellar, Estella Villarreal. All newspaper scans are from Perales.