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Lesson Learned on School Discrimination

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

World War II had just ended and the United States had established itself as a leader of freedom and democracy in the Western world--but not for everyone.

Gonzalo Mendez and his three children were in the middle of a war at home for a simple freedom--the right for the children to attend school with other Americans.

Mendez sued the Westminster School District in 1945 after his children were not allowed to attend school with white children and were ordered to enroll in an all Mexican American school. His suit, and the resulting court ruling, set in motion the integration of schools in Orange County 50 years ago this month.

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Today, the school district is considered a model of integration. There are about 9,000 students in the district’s 16 schools in grades kindergarten through eighth, one-third of whom are Latino, one-third Asian (mostly Vietnamese and Korean) and one-third white.

But the 50th anniversary of Mendez vs. Westminster School District revives painful and embarrassing memories for the district, administrators said. Tracy Painter, current special projects director, called the case “Westminster’s call to infamy” and “a wake-up call” to all districts.

“We learned from it and moved forward,” Painter said. “Over the years, we’ve become known for this embarrassment. But we’ve also been innovative and positive. Our special instructional program, which has become a model for the state and is the first of its kind, is designed to help children whose primary language is not English.”

When Mendez filed the lawsuit, there were only two schools in the district--one for whites and the other for Mexican American children. Later, the lawsuit became a class action on behalf of 5,000 Latino children in the county, and the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and then El Modena school districts were added as defendants.

Court documents in the case, some typed on fragile, onion-skin paper, show that school officials attempted to justify the segregation arguing that Mexican American children were “unable” to speak English and did not understand Mother Goose rhymes.

Mendez, angry that his children were the targets of such thinking, hired Los Angeles lawyer David C. Marcus, who was paid $500 to represent the family. Marcus exposed the racist beliefs of some local educators and challenged the institutional bigotry of the time.

After a monthlong trial in Los Angeles in 1945, U.S. District Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled the following year that the school districts’ policy of maintaining separate schools violated the 14th Amendment right of equal protection.

The ruling, however, is not even a footnote in California history books and many educators do not know or remember the importance of the decision. Orange County Superintendent of Schools John Dean said he had never heard of the case, and the school district has no plans to commemorate the historic event.

Even Mendez, who died in 1964, never captured the important role he played in the civil rights struggle waged by Latinos and African Americans to integrate the nation’s public schools.

“My dad never understood what had happened. He was just doing it for his family and the Mejicanos,” said Gonzalo Mendez Jr., 59, an Orange resident. He and his sister, Sylvia, 60, of Fullerton, and younger brother, Geronimo, 58, of Merced, were the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

While the elder Mendez never saw the case beyond what it did for his family, the Yale Law Journal and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People predicted in 1947 that the ruling would lead to a Supreme Court decision on school segregation. But the suit did not become the national test case because the school districts backed down when their appeal of McCormick’s ruling was rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1954, NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court justice, used the Mendez case in their successful Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit, the landmark case that integrated public schools nationwide.

The Mendezes said they are proud of their contribution to the civil rights struggle, but lament that they remember little of the case. When they were turned away from the 17th Street School, Sylvia was 8, Gonzalo Jr., was 7 and Geronimo was 6. The school was closed in 1974.

“I don’t remember much, except that we knew this was important for my dad,” said Sylvia Mendez. “I do remember going to court and sitting in a big chair when I testified. I had to testify, because [school authorities] said we didn’t speak English.

During the trial, Garden Grove School District Supt. James L. Kent testified that Latino children needed a special curriculum to become “Americanized.” But Marcus showed that most of the children and their parents already spoke fluent English and many parents were U.S. citizens.

In his 19-page ruling, McCormick said the school districts failed to give “credible language tests” to Mexican American children to determine their proficiency in English.

Even in cases where students were monolingual, McCormick wrote: “The evidence clearly shows that Spanish-speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation, and that commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the schoolchildren, which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals.”

McCormick’s ruling was based in part on Kent, who revealed some of the more sinister reasons behind the districts’ segregationist policy and in doing so unwittingly proved to be Marcus’ strongest witness.

Kent’s testimony still rankles Felicitas Mendez, Gonzalo Mendez’s wife, who attended the trial every day with her husband.

“He was a racist. But he wasn’t any different from the other school officials,” said the 80-year-old woman. “Kent had written a thesis that our lawyer introduced in court. It was terrible and racist. He said that Mexicans should be segregated like pigs in pigpens. He said Mexicans were filthy and had lice and all kinds of diseases.”

Kent testified that he did not think Mexicans were white, and he considered them inferior. Court records show that Kent’s testimony included opinions that “Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability and in their economic outlook,” which prompted Marcus to compare him to Hitler.

Marcus sarcastically referred to white students as “super race pupils” who were safeguarded in white-only schools.

Half a century later, county superintendent Dean recoiled when he was read Kent’s testimony.

“That’s blatant racism. It’s hard for me to envision this type of thinking. But we know what times were like then, and it’s hard to say whether [school officials] were bowing to public sentiment,” said Dean.

Although it is difficult now to gauge the public sentiment of the time, court documents show that school administrators relied on the same defense.

In identical arguments filed on behalf of each district by Orange County Deputy Counsel George F. Holden, school officials denied there were “rules, regulations or customs” that kept Mexican American students out of all-white schools.

But Kent testified that he would never allow a Latino child to attend an all-white school even if that child met all the qualifications to attend such a school, according to court documents.

Kent’s opposition to integration prompted a plea to the judge from Frank Palomino, whose children, Arthur and Sally, were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The children were not allowed to enroll at a white-only school in Garden Grove.

“I want to raise my children as good Americans, if they give us a chance,” Palomino testified.

Records also show that then Santa Ana School District Supt. Frank A. Henderson testified that students were assigned to the city’s then 14 elementary schools solely on the basis of their last name.

Exceptions were sometimes made by the four districts for Latino children who “looked” white or had European names, as the Mendezes painfully learned when they attempted to enroll at the 17th Street School.

It was Soledad Vidaurri, the Mendezes’ aunt, who attempted to register the three children at the school in 1944. Vidaurri, who now lives in Bakersfield, also wanted to register her two children. The Mendezes were dark-skinned and with dark eyes. Vidaurri and her children had fair skin.

Vidaurri was told she could enroll her children, but her niece and nephews would have to attend the Mexican-only school. She chose instead not to register any of the children.

Other school districts also made allowances for fair-skinned Mexican American children. In El Modena, now part of the Orange School District, there were two schools--one for Mexican Americans (Lincoln) and the other (Roosevelt) predominantly white.

Alejandro M. Lievanos’ children, Alejandro Jr., Susana and Leo, “looked white” and attended Roosevelt. In 1946, after McCormick’s ruling, Lievanos also enrolled his 6-year-old son, Johnny, at the same school.

But Johnny was rejected at Roosevelt because he had darker skin.

Like Gonzalo Mendez, Alejandro Lievanos sued on behalf of his son. Lievanos asked McCormick to hold El Modena School Supt. Harold Hammarsten and the school board officials in contempt for violating his order to integrate the schools. Hammarsten and the board relented.

Johnny Lievanos, 56, who lives in Porterville, said his family waited until he was a teenager to explain what happened to him because “my dad didn’t want me growing up hating anybody.”

Felicitas Mendez said it was the hate and bigotry directed toward Latinos at the time that motivated her husband to file his lawsuit.

Mendez recalled that she and her husband wondered about their chances of prevailing when the lawsuit was filed, but she said that she “got a good feeling we were going to win” as the trial progressed. “We could tell by the judge’s reaction to the answers by the school officials,” she said.

Marcus’ growing confidence during the trial is apparent in the court records. His sarcasm became more acerbic, and his description of Westminster School District Supt. Richard F. Harris as “this erudite educator” was hardly complimentary.

In defending the district’s segregationist policy, Harris said Latino children were handicapped in “interpreting English words” because their “cultural background” deprived them from learning Mother Goose rhymes.

(Now, Westminster school officials integrate classrooms with at least 50% bilingual students. The program targets children who are not proficient in English “and need special instruction to provide primary language access to the curriculum,” said Painter.)

In 1945, Westminster and the other school districts attempted to justify the segregation largely on the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which institutionalized separate but equal facilities.

But McCormick called the districts’ segregationist policy “utterly irreconcilable.”

“We think such practices clearly and unmistakably disregard rights secured by the supreme law of the land,” he wrote.

Legal scholars quickly grasped the significance of McCormick’s ruling. The yellowing case file, now tucked away in the National Archives in Laguna Niguel, contains letters from various civil rights groups of the day, including the American Jewish Congress in New York and Council for Civic Unity in San Francisco, requesting copies of the order.

In addition, several civil rights attorneys asked for copies, as did the attorney general of Texas. Texas, like Orange County, also segregated Mexican American schoolchildren from first through sixth grade.

Civil rights lawyers also were interested in a finding by McCormick that stripped bare the districts’ argument that Mexican American students were intellectually inferior and, therefore, needed to be instructed in separate schools.

McCormick, after studying El Modena district records, found that Latino students in the seventh grade at Lincoln School in 1945 “were superior scholarly to the same grade in the [predominantly white] Roosevelt School and to any group in the seventh grade in either of the schools in the past.”

In another finding that is relevant in today’s political debate over public education for immigrant children, McCormick referred to two sections of the state Education Code that allows a public education to children of noncitizens who are residents of a “foreign country adjacent” to California.

“Obviously, the children referred to in these laws are those of Mexican ancestry,” McCormick wrote. “And it is noteworthy that the educational advantages of their commingling with other pupils is regarded as being so important to the school system of the state that it is provided for even regardless of the citizenship of the parents.”

The debate currently is whether illegal immigrants and their children should be allowed to attend public schools.

Proposition 187, approved statewide by voters in 1994, prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving public education and other social services. The measure, which was drafted by immigration opponents in Orange County, was promptly challenged in the courts and has not been enforced.

While Felicitas Mendez acknowledged the strides made in race relations over the past five decades, she said that today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric echoes the bitter comments she heard in the days “when whites told us to stay in our place.”

And she still wonders why nobody has recognized her husband for the work he did to improve the country’s race relations. She said he deserves to have a school named after him.

“But some people just didn’t like what he did,” she said.


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