When he died in 2013, Sal Castro drew praise as a Southern California civil rights leader who championed educational opportunities for generations of students of Mexican descent.
While a high school teacher in 1968, he helped thousands of students stage massive walkouts in Los Angeles' east side to protest high dropout rates and poor schooling that ignored their cultural background.
Supporters say his most influential legacy is the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference that he founded in 1963 as a weekend camp in the Santa Monica mountains. The gathering functioned as a cultural pep rally and intensive college application session.
“There was quite a large group of people that knew that this is not something that could die with him. That is when we had the idea to form a foundation to make sure that we keep his legacy alive,” said Myrna Brutti, the conference’s director.
Castro struggled to raise money for the conference, which counts among its alumni such well-known leaders as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and filmmaker Moctesuma Esparza.
The Sal Castro Foundation typically spends about $60,000 to pay for the camp, including food and bus transportation. The group raises the money so that students can attend for free.
Applications to the next conference on March 6 have been sent to LAUSD high school campuses, targeting low-income Latinos, with a Feb. 20 deadline. Organizers hope in years ahead to open the conference to other Southland schools.
Brutti, a middle school principal, said she sees many more college application and high school to college bridge programs today. But a large group of high school students still go without college counseling, she said.
“These are 4.0, 3.7, 3.9, 4.2 [grade-point average] students that graduate from high school and go directly into the workforce because no one has taken the time to really go in depth on…what is available to them,” Brutti said.
The conference gives students like high school junior Savannah Pierce a broader view of their post-graduation choices. She attended the conference in October.
“I never really gave much thought to getting a doctorate degree,” Pierce said. “I thought I was going to do my four years of undergraduate and maybe graduate school. I never realized how many options and opportunities there were.”
When Castro talked to students of Mexican descent, he often transitioned seamlessly between English and Spanish, giving brief lessons on Mexican history and notable Mexicans. The current conference leaders are keeping that tradition alive.
“I never realized how deep and important my culture is and how rich it is with knowledge, and how hard people have worked in the past to get me where I am today,” Pierce said.
Other resources for students seeking help with college applications include: