Yesenia Mateo, a 16-year-old junior at L.A. High, was headed to nutrition class when a throng of students in the main stairwell stopped her in her tracks.
Mateo hadn't come to school that day planning to walk out, and she isn't sure any of the other students did, either. She says she remembers being in a stupor that morning, still distressed from the election results the night before. She spent the evening in tears beside her mother, a Mexican immigrant whose efforts to legalize her status seemed in deeper jeopardy as the TV pundits declared one crucial swing state after another for Trump.
It was Mateo's first semester at the school in Mid-Wilshire. After years of enduring the traffic back and forth to attend better schools in Venice, she had transferred to L.A. High, which is within walking distance of her home.
“Having no voice and having our future depend on [Trump]
The anger that morning in the stairwell was palpable, she says. Shouts of “Fuck Trump” spread through the crowd. Students were jammed down the stairwell and past the main office to the only door in the school that wasn't locked. Someone pushed it open, and someone else yelled “Walkout! Everyone walk out!” The crowd surged forward.
“A lot of people were scared to walk out. And then everyone was like, 'Come on! Come on!'” she says. “And the principal didn't really do anything. She really couldn't do anything. She was just standing there. And then I was like, 'Oh shit, they are down.'”
It was a spontaneous act, a public outburst as unanticipated as Trump's victory the night before. Altogether in the L.A. area, hundreds of students walked out on Nov. 9. For Mateo, the feeling of being carried away in the crowd brought a reprieve from the sense of isolation.
Mateo comes from an activist family. Her older sister was president of MEChA, the Chicano student group at Venice High School, and Mateo founded a chapter of the group when she transferred to L.A. High.
“I think being a Chicana is being a strong person of color,” she says. “Even though in the dictionary it says a first-generation Mexican-American person, I think the word 'Chicana' for me, as a Mexican-American, is just [a description of the] resistance and the strength I have. And the pride, the pride of our culture, of our traditions and our history as fighters, as warriors.”
The student body of L.A. High is 79 percent Latino and 12 percent black, but Mateo says that prior to the walkout most students “didn't really give a fuck about getting involved and trying to change things in our school system.” No more than a few students came to MEChA meetings earlier in the school year. Now the group has a core of a dozen activists.
In addition to the MEChA chapter, Mateo started a new group with broader appeal, part of a citywide network called Students Deserve. One of its first orders of business was organizing a second walkout on Inauguration Day.
A notice of the walkout was posted on Instagram, and word spread. Not everyone was in favor. Mateo and other organizers heard from peers saying protests don't accomplish anything. She says she understands where they're coming from.
“Because, shit, we live in a fucking capitalistic country, and yeah, honestly, protests aren't going to do anything, I agree with that,” she says. “But it's just the time for us to get united, to show our strength, to show our resistance. Our stand needs to be shown.”
Mateo says that on the morning of Jan. 20, about 60 students walked down the main hallway out the door of L.A. High. This time the march didn't dissipate. It proceeded straight to West Adams Preparatory High School, more than three miles away, where school security was attempting to block the students there from walking out. Not long after the L.A. High students gathered at the entrance, the school guards relented and the students pushed open the doors, joining the march of students from about 17 schools to City Hall.
“I guess it was just our time to shine,” Mateo says, “to unite with everybody who was oppressed by him.”
Mateo says Trump's victory has kickstarted a larger interest in student organizing in L.A. public schools. She is working to voice student demands to reprioritize how the district spends its budget — less money to school security, for one, which she says is creating a siege mentality among students, and more money for things like student health services and the hiring of college counselors, custodians and teachers.
She says the group that grew out of the anti-Trump walkouts is also advocating for new school electives such as women's studies, queer studies, Chicano studies and black history studies. Of the current electives on offer to students, she says the most visible are Junior ROTC and wood shop. “It's like they're preparing us for these kinds of jobs, showing us these are the only opportunities that we have.”
She says one good thing has come of Trump: His animus toward immigrants and people of color is driving the new student activism.
“It's basically our future that depends on what he's trying to do,” she says. “As black and brown people, we're in a public school because we can't afford private schools. Most of our parents, most of our families are working minimum-wage jobs, we're cleaning houses, washing cars, washing carpets, all that stuff, because that was kind of our only option.
“So having no voice and having our future depend on him, it is a big weight on us.”