Above: Garfield Senior Ricky Rodriguez is inspired by replicas of signs used during the 1968 protests.

Board President Mónica García encourages Garfield High students to seize the opportunities created by their predecessors.

“It’s a beautiful day to be a Chicana in Los Angeles,” Board of Education President Mónica García exclaimed Thursday as hundreds of Garfield High School students cheered. “It’s a beautiful day to be Latina.”

García’s comments came as she opened an assembly at the East Los Angeles campus, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student walkouts that sparked the Chicano civil rights movement. Community events marking the anniversary began Saturday and will continue through March 10.

“I have come to help you honor those who walked out in 1968 – those who organized tirelessly and who went to great risks because they believed in you and me,” García said. “I hope when you think about civil rights, you think about how people fought so that you could come to school in a world surrounded by teachers and administrators who believe you can learn and who believe you can be anything you want to be.”

At the time of the walkouts, the high school dropout rate for Latino students averaged 60 percent, a dismal showing attributed to gross inequities in the educational system for students of color. After years of failed attempts to effect change through traditional channels, frustration with the system boiled over. Over the course of several days, more than 15,000 students walked out of classes in protest, most coming from the East L.A. high schools known as the Big Five – Belmont, Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson.

Now known as the East L.A. Blowouts, the walkouts marked the largest mobilization of Latino youth in the city’s history. Three alumni who participated in walkouts attended Thursday’s event at Garfield, where they received a standing ovation from the students.

“I feel vindicated,” former Garfield student John Ortiz said. “We didn’t know how to start a movement. We didn’t know exactly what to do or how to do it. But, we knew what needed to be done.”

Joining Ortiz on stage were Lincoln alumni Bobby Verdugo and Yoli Rios Verdugo. The two dated in high school, and recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.

Garfield junior Diana Calderon prepares signs that commemorate the 50th anniversary of the East L.A. Blowouts.

Rios explained that in the ’60s, students were typically placed by the school on either an academic or a technical career track. Most Latinos, she said, were funneled into classes that qualified them only for low-skill jobs.

“I was fortunate enough to have family members who paid attention,” she said. “They insisted that I follow the academic track, because I loved math and was actually excited about math.”

However, Rios explained, even in math classes most teachers didn’t spend much time interacting with Latino students, presuming they were not destined for college.

“My trigonometry teacher would practice golf during class,” she recalled. “I was there to learn and determined to learn, but there wasn’t much instruction happening.”

Verdugo explained that he had been a great student until he reached high school, when there was nobody to help him prepare for the next level. He joined the 50 percent of Lincoln High students who failed to make it to graduation.

“I dropped out in the twelfth grade, and it was the dumbest thing I ever did,” he said. “I let my family down and my community down. But, then as the movement gained momentum, I saw change happening, and I realized that there were people who did believe in us.”

Verdugo eventually earned his diploma, thanks to the support of the late Sal Castro, a former Lincoln High teacher who is regarded as a key leader in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. A middle school in the Westlake District is named in Castro’s honor.

“Sal never gave up on me,” Verdugo said. “And with his help, I had the opportunity to walk across the graduation stage at Lincoln High 40 years later in cap and gown.”

L.A. Unified alumni, from left, Bobby Verdugo, Yoli Rios Verdugo and John Ortiz share their stories about the 1968 walkouts.

García, whose district includes East LA, said the walkouts laid a foundation of educational opportunities for students from all walks of life.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “Our job is not to replicate this history. Our job is to embrace the opportunity that was created. Let’s make sure that Garfield gets to 100 percent graduation.”

The students expressed pride in the central role their school played in the civil rights movement.

“It was so cool to have the chance to meet someone who was actually a Garfield student and who was actually part of the walkouts,” said junior Valeria Garcia. “We were able to learn a lot more than what’s in the textbooks and on the internet because he was actually part of it. He lived it.”

But students also said that while a lot has changed in the last 50 years, there is still along way to go.

“There are only two pages about the Chicano movement in the textbook we use in Advanced Placement history,” said senior John Sanchez. “All the other civil rights movements get a lot more coverage. So we still have a lot to do to create awareness and make sure that what the students in the ’60s did for us doesn’t fade away from memory.”

García wants to build on the work of the past 50 years by laying the groundwork to create new opportunities for students over the next half-century, a campaign she has dubbed Vision 2068.

That message is resonating with students.

“It’s so great that there are adults who believe in us, but there is only so much they can do,”  Sanchez said. “Students need to realize they have the power to make change … They can keep this movement alive. That’s why this matters. Once you understand where you come from, you can appreciate where you need to go.”