SAN JOSE, Calif. - Grainy, black and white video playing at a display inside the San Jose State University Student Center is a doorway in time to an inflection point that changed a campus, community, and country. What is the culmination of college for some, is the beginning of something much bigger for those who chose to walk out of the ceremony..
“We thought there was a problem that needed to be fixed. We were not being represented in schools. At this university, but we were overly represented, we took a lot of causalities in Vietnam so that needed to be fixed. So that was the call to action for us,” said Dr. Armando Valdez, organizer of the Chicano Commencement Walkout ’68.
Valdez holds a Ph.D. from UCLA but Friday he was back at his alma mater, leading a panel discussion about what happened 51 years ago. The discussion is part of “Revisiting Chicano 1968 Commencement.” He was one of San Jose State’s graduates who gathered at Spartan Stadium for the ceremony. But this would be no ordinary pomp and circumstance..
The social caldron of the 60s – Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights -- had a new flashpoint of contention by June of 1968. The fight for Chicano inclusion and equality.
“It changed the direction of my life. It was a very special part of my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s still in my heart,” said Connie Moralez, a walkout ’68 participant.
She was a freshman then, intent on hunkering down on her studies, while living the college experience. That changed over the course of the year, as she became immersed in Chicano studies, and the cause for greater inclusion.
Although Chicanos made up 12% of the san jose population in 1968, and at least 22% of those sent to fight in Vietnam, they were 1% of sjsu graduates. There were no programs, courses, and few if any faculty members. So Valdez about 80 other students wanted to draw attention to this. So they showed up for graduation, and after being welcomed by the president, stood up and walked out.
“Graduating seniors were worried that they would lose all those four years of education, and not get a degree. As we approached the stadium there were droves of policemen,” said Dr. Valdez.
An earlier agreement of non-violence between the university president and activists was honored. The Chicano Commencement Walkout of ’68 sparked similar actions at colleges and universities from California to the American Southwest…
“Virtually every university and college that had admitted Mexican-Americans and African-Americans were now seeing the results of those students protesting the problems that they were in fact bringing. The problems of discrimination, of educational exclusion, of lack of resources. And they were demanding change,” said UCLA historian Dr. Al Camarillo.
Over the decades, change has come. Now over 30% of San Jose State students are Latino, and there are more faculty, programs, and resources..
“I think that we made progress. But there are still a lot of issues that need to be worked on,” said Moralez.
The sacrifice of standing and refusing to participation back then meant the beginning of progress that’s appreciated by some of today’s students..
“Even though they did walk out in that time for it, I think we should be learning about this and we should be taking part in it because those things still do happen nowadays,” said Anabel Munoz, a San Jose High School junior who came to the panel discussion as part of a class trip.
A different view today, because of actions taken more than a half century ago that continue influencing American culture.