The Chicano movement’s values were most on display during what would become known as the West High School Blowout and the subsequent riots. The Crusade for Justice (CFJ) led by a charismatic leader, Corky Gonzales, a Poet, boxer and activist played a large role in both the protests and promoting and supporting the Chicano movement itself.
In 1968 CFJ organized a summer school program called the Freedom School to teach Chicano history, culture, and politics. Two attendees were teenagers Jeanine Perez and Priscilla Martinez. The following semester on returning to West High School the young women began to correct their Social Studies teacher, Harry Schafer when he mispronounced their surnames and presented inaccurate American history. Angered by their insistence Harry Schafer said that people from the CFJ were ignorant and uneducated. He also remarked, “All Mexicans are stupid because their parents were stupid and their parent’s parents before them were stupid.”
The racist policies in place at West High school and throughout America began decades earlier with English-only education laws. After the Mexican American war ended in 1848 American law recognized both Spanish and English in public schools. Bilingual education was typical and even German settlers started German-English bilingual schools, and eventually German-English-Spanish schools. Prior to 1918 there were English, Spanish, and Cherokee schools throughout the southwest. However, in the aftermath of World War 1 and with the growing nationalism throughout America, state governments passed and enforced English-only laws and education reform. This had disastrous consequences for the Spanish speaking community.
It cut the linguistic ties to Mexican culture, art and politics as people grew up without exposure to Spanish language writers, artists, or politicians. Lacking this cultural link Spanish would become denigrated to the language of poverty relegated to the dialect of the barrio used by those with little hope of financial success.
It also majorly disadvantaged Chicano students as Spanish speaking children often spent many years in kindergarten reprimanded for speaking Spanish and forced to learn English. My own grandmother spent many years in kindergarten. One of my relatives who lived through the period described:
The first thing they do is teach to hate yourself. If you speak Spanish at school, you have to go to the blackboard and stand with your nose against it as punishment. They’ll slap your hand. You are shamed for speaking your own language. There is a connection between mother and child from singing and communicating as a baby that is broken and rejected with English-only education.
This linguistic and cultural history is not taught in school now nor was it in 1969 when Jeanine Perez and Priscilla Martinez were harassed by their teacher. Frustrated, Harry Schafer challenged the CFJ members to a debate the following day in class. Enersto Vigil and others from the CFJ arrived the following day to discuss their culture, history and language, but Harry Schafer retreated to the teachers’ lounge and refused to address them leaving the CFJ to present their ideas in the classroom in his absence. The CFJ then asked students and their parents to document the racist remarks and actions of Schafer.
Corky Gonzales requested a meeting on Feb 27th at West high School with the principal where 20+ students and parents presented the facts and demanded that Schafer be removed after which the principal agreed. However, several days later the administration changed their minds and refused to transfer or fire Schafer.
On Wednesday March 19th the students—fed up with inaction—proposed a spontaneous walk out the following day at 9 am estimating 50-75 students would participate. The following morning, over 300 people including other Crusade members, parents and families showed up on the steps of Denver’s West High. Corky Gonzales and student leaders begin giving speeches promoting solidarity.
The Denver Police Force mobilized in full riot gear. They requested the protest move across the street then, without giving the protest time to move across the street—waded into the crowed beating the students with billy clubs and tear gassing protesters. Corky was thrown to the ground and arrested along with most of the other leaders. Young women were thrown into the street and dragged into awaiting police vans. The situation quickly spiraled out of control in the face of police violence.
Janine Perez later said, “A lot of us were scared to death, we were just out there to demand some rights, we weren’t being violent. We were out there with families. Our younger brothers and sisters walked out. We didn’t have any riot gear or gas masks. The police did and they came ready for war. I noticed my brother Max was passed out from the gas by a tree. I revived him with a little snow that was on the ground and then we took off running.”
The police took members to jail and continued to terrorize the community deploying helicopters and more riot police. One block east of the jail on 14th and Champa, a spontaneous crowd of hundreds of Chicanos gathered and marched on the city jail filling the streets from curb to curb. The police became unable to enter or exit the building and could not re-establish control. They decided to release Corky Gonzales but he refused until all other activists were released from police custody. After hours of negotiation—the police released all their hostages.
That night, a meeting was held at the CFJ auditorium to plan subsequent action and the following morning 1,500 students participated in a walkout in schools all over Colorado. Protests converged at Lincoln Park as did eager riot police this time deployed in full force and the scene quickly descended into a violet riot. Helicopters began released a chemical irritant throughout Denver’s West side and tear gas was used indiscriminately. By the afternoon, the police force had depleted their teargas supply and increasingly gunshots rang out. The crowed would disperse into the neighborhood only to quickly regroup and begin marching elsewhere. The corner of 9th and Galapago saw the most violent outbreaks as 25 police cars were damaged, and 17 police officers were treated for injuries at the hospital.
The violence and militancy were just beginning and continued for years. The Denver Police Department would soon be assisted by the FBI who began tracking and investigating CFJ members under the illegal program COINTELPRO which sought to dismantle Chicano activism through intimidation, violence and subterfuge. Police brutality continued and some Chicano’s seriously considered the gorilla war tactics of Che Guevara. In 1971 a shoot out occurred on the streets of Denver and the Crusade headquarters was destroyed in an explosion–but more on that later.
Before the West Side Blowout the Crusade for Justice and Corky Gonzales were popular with a small number of adult leftest intellectuals. Some crusade members traveled to Washington to support the Poor People’s Campaign, organize protests for farm workers rights and support Anti-Vietnam war protests but in a fairly limited capacity.
The real momentum of Chicano activism in Colorado started that day in a spontaneous moment where teenagers were unwilling to endure their teachers racist remarks and silently stood up and walked out of class.
After the riots ended, Schafer was removed and the School Administration was eager to talk about hiring Spanish surnamed teachers and amending the curriculum.
Video from Colorado History Museum with footage of the protest and riots:
Articles discussing the riots:
La Voz (2015) . El Chicano Movimiento series: Crusade for Justice