1969 Denver school walkout helped launch Chicano movement (2023)

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.

(Video) I AM DENVER: Nita Gonzales, 'Daughter of the Chicano Movement'

"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.

(Video) Rodolfo 'Corky' Gonzales fought to give Latinos a voice

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. That left it cloudy inside the van and the detainees struggling, Martinez said.

"Your eyes are stinging, your skin and everything is just, you know, stinging like crazy."

The protest didn't end there.

Twenty-five squad cars were sent to the scene and a police helicopter hovered overhead.

Demonstrators marched north to the Denver Police Building, City Hall and Mayor Bill McNichols' office.

Gonzales said the walkout got bigger the next day, March 21, 1969, as students joined in from the city's schools.

"Manuel, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, South, all came out and supported the students at West High School," she said.

Members from the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers, two groups also considered extremely radical in the 60s, joined in. Martinez said at least 1,000 protesters were there.

"These were people of different races that supported the students and their grievances and their demands," he said. "And this is when really, there is a riot that took place. Kids were throwing bottles and rocks and everything at the policemen and cars were destroyed."

A newsreel produced by City of Denver Commission on Community Relations intoned that demonstrators "showered newsman, officers and bystanders with rocks, bottles and beer cans." Scenes of broken glass and splatters of blood on the sidewalk, as well as actions against police were shown. Commentary from Corky Gonzales was included.

(Video) Women of Chicano Movement Continue to Fight for Justice

"We were not in the wrong," Martinez said. "We tried to do things peaceful. We were basically there to hear what the leadership had to say and their grievances were legitimate. And we had no intention of being violent or anything like that."

The demonstrations came to be known as the "blowouts" and the four days of unrest on the West side cost the city of Denver at least $25,000, the Rocky Mountain News reported.

Nita Gonzales said students presented a list of nine demands and wanted the social studies teacher fired.

"The ones that were critical in my mind was the curriculum," she said. "Having a curriculum that represents us, that we're in that history, in that story. To have more Chicano teachers, counselors and administrators."

Then-Denver Public Schools Superintendent Robert D. Gilberts agreed to change the curriculum and the teaching staff. The teacher who insulted the students was not fired and instead was transferred to another school.

For Emanuel Martinez, the "walkouts did make a big impact on our community. More teachers were hired," he said. "We just never really learn about these things that would give us, you know, a positive look at ourselves."

The West blowouts helped kick-start what became known as El Movimiento, the Chicano Movement. Just a few weeks later, the Crusade for Justice held the first ever Youth Liberation Conference. Nearly 1,500 young Chicanos from across the country were drawn to Denver.

In the years that followed the 1969 West protests, different Chicano youth groups formed and there were anti-war demonstrations, walkouts in California and protests throughout the Southwest.

Ramon Del Castillo, a Chicano Studies professor at Metropolitan State University, said the blowouts were a movement catalyst and a lot of things came together at the right time.

"The beginning of Chicano Studies came from not just West but also that Youth Conference," he said. "We've created a well-researched, methodologically sound discipline that'll stand up to any other work in political science and sociology. We now have the scholarship and the scholars that do that."

(Video) Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center honoring Chicano Movement

Artists, poetry, literature, music, dance and more came out of El Movimiento, he said.

Gonzales never left activism. She ran Escuela Tlatelolco, an alternative K-12 school born out of the Chicano Movement, and was recognized as a Champion of Change by the Obama administration. The way West High students stood up still sticks out in her mind today.

"It was like a wildfire that just started to consume, travel across the states saying, 'We have a right to stand up, we have a right to live a life that we have justice and equality and it's not going to happen because someone feels sorry for us,'" she said. "It's going to happen when we stand up, when we say '¡Ya basta! No more. We're not doing this anymore.'"

Martinez is a successful artist with works found across Denver, the Southwest and in the Smithsonian. One of his latest efforts is an art installation for the school to recognize the protests. He sees the legacy of the blowouts today and even within his own family.

"The very thing we were fighting for, I think (Mia's) living proof that it was effective," he said.

His daughter leads West Early College now. And his 17-year-old grandson, Esai Lopez, a West student, is part of Al Frente De Lucha, a group that teaches young people Chicano history and culture.

Lopez wants people to be open minded and educate themselves.

"Whether it's watching more documentaries about something or reading a book about history, just to get to know the world better," he said. "I think it's important to stand for something."


What was the reasoning for the Denver Public schools West High walkout of 1969? ›

One of the largest and most violent student protests in Colorado history broke out on March 20, 1969 when over a hundred Chicano and Chicana students at Denver's West High School walked out of their classes to protest racism in their school.

What was the walkout Chicano movement? ›

The East Los Angeles Walkouts represented a call to action for civil rights and access to education for Latino youth in the city. Even with the rejection from the Board of Education, the event remains one of the largest student protests in United States history.

What was the Chicano Movement in Denver? ›

Denver's Chicano Movement

On March 20, 1969, Denver West High School organized a walkout with the support of Denver's Crusade for Justice, founded by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. Close to 300 students staged a walkout and march to Baker Junior High School to protest.

What was the East LA 1968 walkout the day high school students helped ignite the Chicano power movement? ›

The East Los Angeles Walkouts or Chicano Blowouts were a series of 1968 protests by Chicano students against unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. The first walkout occurred on March 5, 1968.

What was the primary goal of these walkouts? ›

blowouts, social protest in March 1968 in which thousands of Mexican American high-school students walked out of classes in Los Angeles, protesting inequality in the public education system. The walkouts contributed to the wider Chicano movement seeking civil rights reform for Latinos.

What was the impact of the 1968 walkouts? ›

Although the walkouts had no immediate effect in changing conditions for Chicanos in Los Angeles schools, historians and activists consider them a catalyst for the then-burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement. “It put us on the map,” says Montes, now a community activist focused on police brutality.

What started the Chicano Movement? ›

"The Chicana-Chicano movement emerged in 1965 when César Chávez and Dolores Huerta launched their great boycott through the United Farm Workers union," Márquez said.

Why did the Chicano Movement start? ›

In the 1960s, inspired by the success of the African American Civil Rights Movement3 in the South, Chicanos began actively fighting for equality. The Chicano Movement expanded and covered many different issues, but it mostly focused on four: land ownership, workers' rights, and educational and political equality.

What was the purpose of the Chicano Movement? ›

In the 1960s, a radicalized Mexican-American movement began pushing for a new identification. The Chicano Movement, aka El Movimiento, advocated social and political empowerment through a chicanismo or cultural nationalism.

Who was a key figure from Denver Colorado in the Chicano Movement? ›

Rodolfo Gonzales, byname Corky, (born June 18, 1928, Denver, Colorado, U.S.—died April 12, 2005, Denver), Mexican American boxer, writer, and civil rights activist who was a leading figure in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and '70s.

What was the most important part of the Chicano Movement? ›

[The Chicano Movement] called for the Chicano community to be able to control its own resources and determine its own future. It called for community control of its schools, its economy, its politics, and its culture.

What was the purpose of the Chicano Movement quizlet? ›

(The Chicano Movement emerged during the civil rights era with three goals: restoration of land, rights for farm workers and education reforms.)

When did the Chicano Movement start? ›

The modern Chicano political movement, most scholars agree, began during the mid 1960's — a time coinciding with the Black power movement.

What were some of the demands of Chicano students in the East LA walkouts what types of changes did they want to see in their education? ›

These activists were demanding social justice, greater educational opportunities and an end to the war in Vietnam. At the time, the school district largely ignored Mexican American history, and Chicano students were forbidden from speaking Spanish and often steered toward vocational careers instead of college.

How did the Chicano students in walkout make their voices heard? ›

We are proud to help tell their story on the 50th anniversary of the walkouts, as a new generation of students takes up their banner to use walkouts as a megaphone for their voices to be heard. It was the height of civil rights activism. Spring of 1968.

Was the National School walkout successful? ›

The petition accumulated over 270,000 signatures. Murdock and fellow Ridgefield students Paul Kim, Max Cumming, and Grant Yaun partnered with Indivisible to successfully rollout the effort.

What is the significance of 5280 in Denver? ›

5280 is an American monthly magazine focused on Denver, Colorado and published by 5280 Publishing, Inc. Its name derives from Denver's elevation of 5,280 feet (1609 m / 1 mile) above sea level. The monthly publication has an audited circulation of 77,027, making it the largest local magazine in Colorado.

What happened to the four high schools in Little Rock in 1958? ›

On Sept. 12, 1958, Gov. Orval Faubus closed all Little Rock, Arkansas public high schools for one year rather than allow integration to continue, leaving 3,665 Black and white students without access to public education.


1. Austin Revealed: Chicano Civil Rights "Role of Chicano Identity in Arts"
(Austin PBS)
2. Mexican-Americans: The Invisible Minority (1969)
(Reelblack One)
3. A history that needed to be discovered || THE CHICANO MOVEMENT - Ladies & Tangents Podcast Ep. 158
(Ladies & Tangents)
4. Rewriting the Chicano Movement: New Histories of Mexican American Activism in the Civil Rights Era
(The University of Arizona Press)
5. Civil Rights History Project: Carlos Montes
(Library of Congress)
6. Colorado Experience: Justicia y Libertad
(Rocky Mountain PBS)
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