Before the school shooting, Uvalde was known for a 1970 Hispanic student walkout. Its aging participants fear its spirit and memory are fading.
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UVALDE — On April 14, 1970, 16-year-old Rebecca Ciprian sat at her desk at Uvalde High School, half paying attention to her English teacher and anxiously awaiting a knock on the classroom door.
Around 9 a.m., student Alfredo Santos knocked, opened the door and nodded his head to the roughly 30 students inside. Nearly all of them stood and walked out, Ciprian, who now goes by Ciprian-Moreno, remembers, as their teacher repeatedly yelled, “If you all walk out, you’re all going to fail.”
The walkout was prompted after the white principal of Robb Elementary recommended that the school board not renew the contract of fifth grade teacher Josué “George” Garza — one of the few Hispanic and bilingual teachers in the district. For them, it was a final insult after years of discrimination by school staff who punished students for speaking Spanish or made fun of them as they learned English.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed segregated schools in 1953, Uvalde’s Mexican American children were sent to Robb Elementary or Anthon Elementary, where almost all of the students were Hispanic, while most of the city’s white children attended Dalton Elementary — considered the better-resourced elementary. So when Garza was dismissed, the students had enough, Ciprian-Moreno said.
On the first day, about 200 students walked out. Before long, the number reached nearly 650, or 18% of the city’s student population who stopped attending classes. They said they would return only if Garza’s contract was renewed and if school administrators met a list of 13 other demands that included hiring more Hispanic teachers, providing Mexican American history classes and requiring that teachers learn how to properly pronounce the names of Hispanic students.
The students marched toward the county jail downtown. A helicopter tracked them from the sky. As they passed the jail, someone turned on the sprinkler system. A woman hurled a bar of soap at them. The implication, Ciprian-Moreno said, was that they were “dirty Mexicans.”
She kept repeating what Santos had told them leading up to the walkout. No tengas miedo. Don’t be afraid.
“We were hoping to show the county that we were united as Hispanic students and that we were able to carry out our protests in a peaceful and intelligent manner no matter what they thought of us,” said Ciprian-Moreno, now 70 and retired after a 30-year teaching career in Uvalde and nearby cities.
The walkout lasted six weeks and is one of the longest school boycotts in American history. It was also a pivotal moment for the town’s Mexican American residents, who said casual racism was pervasive in Uvalde in those days.
The school boycott gave that generation of Uvalde students a sense of pride for standing up against a discriminatory school system. The event inspired some to attend college, run for elected office and become teachers and labor organizers. It also sparked a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the school district that led to a desegregation order and decades of court-ordered monitoring of the district.
But that generation is getting older and dying, and their stories about the town’s Mexican American resistance are fading, Ciprian-Moreno said. She and others interviewed for this story say the history of the walkout isn’t taught in local schools — a spokesperson for the Uvalde school district said she could not confirm whether that’s true.
And Robb Elementary, the school that triggered the walkout, is now known around the world as the place where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers.
“We were known for the walkout and it was one of the biggest things in American history. And it was a positive thing,” Ciprian-Moreno said. “And now I can imagine people will say around the world … ‘Oh, yeah, that's where the shooting happened,’ which is very negative.”
“What a tragic way to introduce Uvalde to the world,” said the Rev. Eduardo Morales, whose mother filed the lawsuit that led to the school desegregation order.
Punishment for speaking Spanish
Uvalde is named after Juan de Ugalde, an 18th century Spanish governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila — just over 60 miles away.
Today, more than 80% of its roughly 15,000 residents are Hispanic, and six out of 10 residents speak Spanish at home — although they primarily speak a border “Spanglish” that bounces between English and Spanish.
The town now has a bilingual school where teachers instruct students in English and Spanish, and Hispanic residents and students say they no longer face backlash for openly speaking Spanish.
But it wasn’t always like this for Mexican American students.
Ciprian-Moreno, who said English is her second language, recalls a male teacher pulling her hair as punishment for speaking Spanish in class. On the playground, afraid to get punished, she and her friends would play tetherball without saying a word, she said.
In second grade, she said a teacher twisted her ear so hard it bled because she wasn’t paying attention in class. This type of punishment wasn’t applied to her white classmates, she said.
“Those were the sad things that we went through,” Ciprian-Moreno said, sitting on a small couch inside her childhood home, which is filled with framed pictures of her two daughters — one is now Robb Elementary’s principal — five grandchildren, two of whom live with her, and one great grandchild. (Ciprian-Moreno declined to speak about her daughter’s experience at the school during the shooting.)
On the streets of Uvalde, Mexican Americans were expected to step out of the way when white people approached on the sidewalk, Ciprian-Moreno said of her youth. At the local department store, she said it was common for employees to urge Mexican American customers to shop quickly so they would leave the store faster.
“In a way, we felt inferior because we just thought we were inferior,” she said.
“Back in those days, we were considered second-class citizens,” said Sergio Porras, 71, who participated in the Uvalde walkout as a high-school senior.
But as they entered high school, change was sweeping the nation as many Americans challenged social norms that marginalized women and people of color.
In the ’60s, Mexican Americans across the Southwest had launched demonstrations demanding better education, labor rights and more access to voting booths by providing election materials in Spanish. Ciprian-Moreno said she looked up to César Chávez, a migrant farm worker-turned-activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta and fought for higher wages and safer working conditions for farm workers — and eventually succeeded in creating the nation’s first unions for farm workers.
She said Uvalde students were also inspired by high school students in Crystal City, 40 miles to the south, who had walked out for about a month in December 1969 after Mexican American students were denied spots on the cheerleading team.
Ciprian-Moreno’s grandfather fought with Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the Mexican Revolution more than a century ago, and she grew up hearing his stories about the courage of Villa and fellow revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
“I have always believed in what [Zapata] says,” she said. “You die on your feet, not on your knees.”
In the early months of 1970, Ciprian-Moreno said she and her classmates would gather during the lunch hour and after school to talk about doing something collectively to send a message.
The school district’s decision not to renew Josué Garza’s contract is what lit the fuse.
Garza had been teaching fifth grade at Robb Elementary since 1965 and quickly became a role model and ally to Mexican American kids. He served as a translator between Spanish-speaking parents and the white principal, and he helped the students raise money to build the first basketball court and running track on campus.
Garza also helped students plant the pecan trees in front of the school that now shade the flowers, candles and toys that people have laid to memorialize the students and teachers who died May 24 when a gunman entered the school and opened fire.
When Garza began to study for his master’s degree at Texas State University (then Southwest Texas State University) in San Marcos, the school’s principal felt threatened, Garza said in a 2016 interview. After he announced that he was running for county judge, he received a letter from the school district saying he would not get another contract to teach after the 1970 school year ended.
Word quickly spread around the town. The news prompted a demonstration at a school board meeting on April 13, 1970. The school board postponed a vote on Garza’s contract, but a student at the meeting told the board that if Garza’s contract wasn’t renewed, students would walk out of classes, according to an article in the Uvalde Leader-News.
At a meeting later that week, the school board voted not to renew Garza’s contract.
“That was like a climax to a chain of injustices that had been occurring,” Garza said in the 2016 interview.
Garza took a job as principal of a junior high school in Crystal City and later returned home and was elected mayor of Uvalde in 1996.
School board ignored demands
After the board didn’t renew Garza’s contract, some students continued to demonstrate the following week outside of Robb Elementary, at the town’s junior high school and school board meetings. Some demonstrators, including Ciprian-Moreno, recall seeing Texas Rangers on rooftops with guns pointed at students. A group of parents created the Mexican American Parents Association and wrote letters to the local newspaper and federal officials to bring attention to their children’s cause.
In the meantime, students were being tutored by volunteers so they wouldn’t fall behind in their studies.
When the school year ended in May, the school board ignored the students’ demands. The high school flunked the seniors who walked out — they had to repeat their final year. Some of them, like Porras, didn’t return to school and instead took a General Educational Development test elsewhere in Texas or out of state.
That summer, Genoveva Morales, a mother of 11 children, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district, claiming it discriminated against Hispanic students by not providing them the same quality of education as white students and that it had segregated them from attending two better-funded elementary schools.
John H. Wood Jr., a federal district judge in San Antonio, ruled against Morales, saying he found "no evidence of discriminatory intent, past or present" by the school district. But Morales appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in 1975 that the Uvalde school district had segregated its schools, violating the rights of Hispanic students.
The case went back to Wood, who ordered the district to come up with a plan to desegregate the schools. Until 2017, the district was under court supervision to make sure it followed that plan.
Those who participated in the walkout have different perspectives on what has changed in Uvalde since 1970. They point to the school district’s dual-language program, to Hispanic residents being elected to local government positions — and how they don’t have to deal with racist comments when they’re out in public. Today, the school board and city council are majority Hispanic. The county commission is evenly split between Hispanic and white members.
In 2014, the school board named a middle school after Morales, the only public memorial acknowledging the local civil rights movement that started in 1970.
But some of those who participated in the walkout lament that what they did is not being taught in the school that bears Morales’ name — or in any of Uvalde’s public schools. They worry that a younger generation may forget the injustices Mexican Americans have faced in Uvalde.
“You tell the kids now in high school, they're not even aware of the walkout,” Porras said. Sitting on a chair outside Ciprian-Moreno’s sister’s house, wearing sunglasses and a bandana across his forehead, Porras added, “It’s not in the books, so we won’t hear about it.”
Santos, the student who knocked on Ciprian-Moreno’s classroom door, said some people don’t want to learn about Uvalde’s Mexican American history because it doesn’t portray the town in a positive light.
“Some people consider the walkout in Uvalde una mancha negra (a black mark), but it’s something that did happen,” said Santos, 70. “Just like this massacre on May 24. It's a black mark and it did happen — 19 kids and two teachers died. But there are people who rather have a lovey-dovey version of history.”
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