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.