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Tour of historical spots helps Mendez education efforts

Sandra Robbie couldn't believe it took her so long to learn about Mendez vs. Westminster.

She grew up in a Mexican American family in Westminster in the 1960s and 1970s, but never heard about the landmark case that not only ended school segregation in her hometown but also laid the groundwork for desegregation across the United States.

It was only in 1997, when the Mendez School in Santa Ana was being built, that she learned the story.

"In my mind, I was screaming," she said. "It doesn't get bigger than this! And nobody thought it was important enough to mention? I was finally seeing people like my family and my community — people of all different colors — represented in a story that not only changed Orange County and Westminster, where I grew up, but an entire nation."

So Robbie, now a self-proclaimed "Mendez maniac," decided to dedicate herself to spreading the word.

"I didn't know how, I didn't know when, but I knew that by the time I was done, everyone was going to know about Mendez v. Westminster," she said.

In 2002, she wrote and produced the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary "Mendez v. Westminster: For All the Children," which helped spark public interest in the case.

This month, she launched a new project, OC Peace Ride, which she describes as a "mind-blowing, rock-n-rolling American civil rights and tolerance tour."

The one-hour tour aboard a vintage Disney trolley zigzags among historic landmarks in Orange and Santa Ana while Robbie narrates the history of segregated Orange County and delivers interesting trivia.

The message she always circles back to is the links between communities. The Mendez case wasn't just about Mexicans. It also involved the struggle of Japanese Americans, African Americans and Jews.

"Even though Brown v. Board of Education desegregated our schools, we still segregate the way we talk about history," she said. "We talk about it as if it's black history, Latino history, Asian American history. But this story blows those walls down and shows that we're all connected. And that's what the American civil rights struggle is all about."

The first stop on the tour is the historic Cypress Street Schoolhouse in Orange, the last standing Mexican school from the days of segregation. It is now owned and has been renovated by Chapman University. The trolley then circled around in front of Chapman's Memorial Hall, where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1961, two years before the March on Washington.

Chapman is now home to an archive dedicated to Mendez vs. Westminster, a project Robbie also led with the College of Educational Studies.

Robbie then pointed out the old Orange Theatre on Glassell Street, which once forced Mexicans to sit in the balcony so they would be separated from whites, and the Hart Park pool. Once known as "the Plunge," it designated Mondays as "Mexican Day."

"Then they drained the pool and cleaned it for whites to use the rest of the week," said Robbie.

The trolley then rolled into the Santa Ana Cemetery, where Confederate soldiers are buried. Also interred at the adjacent Fairhaven Memorial Park Cemetery is Leo Fender, the famous guitar maker from Orange County whose instruments were used by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the Beatles.

In another piece of music trivia, Robbie pointed out that Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers could only have written his 1963 hit song "Little Latin Lupe Lu," about a Mexican girl he dated at Santa Ana High School, because of school desegregation that followed Mendez vs. Westminster.

Robbie said the OC PeaceRide is a way to preserve important local history that rarely — if ever — shows up in school textbooks.

"Orange County doesn't have a museum of tolerance, a place where we can go and focus on these issues," she said. "We're a huge, diverse county with people of all colors, and we need a way to celebrate that."

But it's not just for locals. Robbie wants everyone to know about Mendez vs. Westminster. Part of the tour's proceeds will be used to send Mendez-related curriculum to schools across the country, and Robbie hopes that as public awareness of the case increases, parents will bring their kids on the OC PeaceRide as part of their Disneyland vacation.

"Being able to share this with people," she said, "it's like giving someone the biggest present."

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caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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