SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — Chicano student activists from the 1960s returned to campus on Friday to celebrate a milestone event at San Jose State University.

“We believed at the time, that we could change society,” said Dr. Armando Valdez, one of the organizers of the student walkout at the 1968 San Jose State Commencement exercises.

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The students protested over the under representation of Mexican Americans on college campuses and the over
representation of Chicano casualties in the Vietnam war.

“The graduating seniors of ’68 that were Chicanos were less than one percent. A real inequity there. Conversely, Chicano casualties in Vietnam were over 22 percent,” Valdez said.

But tensions between the students and the university grew as student demands for community outreach, Chicano studies courses and more Chicano faculty were ignored.

It came to a head on graduation day. Grainy film footage from that days shows larges squads of San Jose Police officers and Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Deputies were on hand in riot gear.

But the students staged a peaceful protest by walking out of their own graduation ceremony.

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They crossed the street to the Spartan track and held their own Chicano commencement, a tradition that endures at San Jose State and around California to this day.

“I think the record shows that we were on the right side of history,” Valdez said.

The university held a symposium on campus, with many of the original student activists. They reflected on the significance of their protest.

“They took us seriously, and they started making some changes, of course with pressure,” said Rosalinda Martinez, a former student activist.

Three months after the walkout, programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program were enacted.

“You could take out student loans, which I did. And there were some grants available so you were able to take classes,” said Antonio Chavez, who also helped organizer the walkout.

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Today, San Jose State is the 13th most ethnically diverse campus in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Latino-Latina enrollment, as of the fall 2018, is 30.4 percent, according to an SJSU spokesperson.