Sal Castro: A Catalyst for Change

September 6, 2013

Alumnus built a career out of empowering and inspiring students as a dedicated teacher in Los Angeles.

Castro, on the megaphone

Castro, on the megaphone, was a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School when the student walkouts occurred in 1968. Photo courtesy Charlotte Lerchenmuller.

There was a time when the prevailing attitude in Los Angeles schools was that Mexican-American students weren't college material.

Decades of institutionalized racism culled an environment that perpetuated negative stereotypes, high dropout rates, sparse resources, overcrowding and reinforced low expectations. Opportunities in the racialized Eastside schools were limited, with Mexican-American students being guided into vocational courses instead of academic instruction tracks for the college-bound students.

As one of a few Mexican-American educators in the East Los Angeles schools in the 1960s, Sal Castro ('61) inspired thousands of students to fight against their inferior education-an effort that grew into the East Los Angeles student walkouts of 1968. Over several days that spring, thousands of students vacated classrooms in mass protest against unequal conditions and unfair policies while urging for action from the school board.

The enthusiasm of the students who participated in the walkouts as well as programs such as the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference, which Castro helped run, soon extended to their friends, families and eventually the whole community-serving as a catalyst for the Chicano Movement.

Though the walkouts may have helped the causes of the Chicano community, it was sometimes at great cost to Castro, who was arrested (though later cleared) for his role in the walkouts and endured occasional threats, harassment and professional repercussions for decades. Yet, every transfer and new assignment on a playground or campus meant a new community for him to engage with and hundreds, if not thousands, more young Chicanos to inspire.

Sal Castro

In June 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District honored Castro through the naming of the Sal Castro Middle School, located on the Belmont High School campus. Photo courtesy Charlotte Lerchenmuller.

"Sal had a strong belief in what was right and wrong, and he fought for those beliefs," says Castro's wife Charlotte Lerchenmuller ('67, '78 M.S.). "He was an outstanding teacher, father, grandfather, citizen of the world and believer in this country living up to its promises of equality and justice for all. After the walkouts, he continued to teach, mentor, motivate, serve and change lives for 45 more years."

Castro passed away on April 15 after a bout with cancer. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels-a testament to Castro's legacy in the Los Angeles community.

The story of Castro and the Chicano Movement has been well-documented, most notably in the book, Blowout! Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice, which he co-wrote with University of California, Santa Barbara professor Mario T. Garcia.

In this issue of Cal State L.A. Today, Dr. Rita Ledesma, chair of the Department of Child and Family Studies and professor in the School of Social Work, reflects on her personal experience with Castro and his influence on Chicano youths in Los Angeles.

Sal Castro and Rita Ledesma

CSULA Social Work Professor Rita Ledesma met Castro through the UCLA Upward Bound program in 1968. Photo courtesy Rita Ledesma.

In his life achievements, Sal Castro epitomized the goals, vision and potential of Cal State L.A. He was proud to be a "Diablo" and a graduate of Cal State L.A. and he recognized that CSULA was an important member of the region. Mr. Castro has been widely recognized for his role during and after the East Los Angeles student walkouts of 1968, but his commitment to student success, achievement and community engagement preceded and followed the event. He possessed depth of knowledge about U.S. and Mexican history and the Chicano/a Latino/a experience in the United States and many of his life experiences mirrored that history. His commitment to a wide range of activities to promote the educational advancement of Chicano/a Latino/a students was legendary. In his roles as a teacher, mentor, scholar, engaged community activist and leader, jazz aficionado, veteran, father, husband, brother, son and uncle, he demonstrated vision and the values of respect, responsibility, a strong work ethic, dedication, good humor, obligation, commitment and love. Mr. Castro lived an authentic, rich, multidimensional, complex life, because he was an authentic, rich, multidimensional, and complex man. My life has been enriched and my career path and interests have been fueled by the lessons of his life and his example.

I learned about Mr. Castro during the walkouts. My first substantive interactions with him took place when I was a 17-year-old high school dropout from Roosevelt High School. Despite this status, I was enrolled in the UCLA Upward Bound Program during the summer of 1968. Mr. Castro was in a leadership role and I was assigned to one of his classes. During the course of that summer, he helped to transform my identity from high school dropout to college student. With his help and support, I was admitted into UCLA in the High Potential Program, and I began my college career.

I am only one of thousands of students that Mr. Castro mentored, supported and promoted. In many ways, Mr. Castro is the father of my education. I'm here because he believed in me, encouraged me and promoted me. My professional career as a social worker and at Cal State Los Angeles and my commitment to advancing student success, achievement and educational equity is directly influenced by the lessons I learned from him. He was proud of my educational achievements, and he expected that I would share these achievements with the Chicano/a Latino/a community as a mentor, model and advocate. I have been humbled and grateful to be involved with the Chicano Youth Leadership Camp. I will miss being introduced by Sal as one of his kids or as "Dr. Ledesma," but I will most miss the random phone call from him and the greeting and call to engagement, and the opportunity to share the lessons that he taught: "Dr. Ledesma! Sal Castro, here. Mija, I have someone I want to send to you" or "Dr. Ledesma! Sal Castro, here. Mija, I need you to speak at this event." I think that Sal enjoyed introducing me as "Dr. Ledesma", because the doctorate represented his commitments and his life's work. I certainly felt great honor and love when Sal introduced me. I will miss Sal, his phone calls, introductions and calls to action, but I am renewed in the commitment to continue his work.

Sal Castro's life and achievements remind the Cal State L.A. community of our obligation to serve the local community, to provide the highest quality educational experience, to provide academic and social support and to strengthen the educational pipeline. He understood that community advancement was associated with educational advancement and he understood that the lessons of our history can inform our future. His life is a lesson that can inform and advance the mission, goals and potential of California State University, Los Angeles and guide us into the future.

Young Democrats Club

Castro, bottom row second from left, was a member of the Young Democrats Club while at L.A. State. Photo courtesy Charlotte Lerchenmuller.