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A Landmark Little Noted--Until Today

Christopher J. Arriola, a graduate of El Modena High School, is a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County in the Compton branch office

Most people do not realize that it was common practice to segregate Mexican Americans in the schools and in society at large throughout California. Fifty years ago today, a landmark court decision ended this atrocity.

The inequities of discrimination evolved along with the slowly deteriorating status of Mexican Americans after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when Mexico surrendered California to the United States, and from the basic unfairness of many American institutions that until then had been seen only in the South and the cities of the Northeast. These institutions were transplanted to California after the Gold Rush of 1849. But the real troubles surfaced around 1910 when Anglo communities in Southern and Central California began to encounter larger numbers of Mexicans. The new immigrants were attracted by the booming citrus industry or driven north by civil unrest in Mexico, and the deeply rooted Californian Mexican American population multiplied to three times its size by the 1920s. California now was confronted with what was termed “the Mexican problem” (sound familiar?).

Common reactions to the “problem” involved some form of segregation in practice, if not in law: housing on the “Mexican side of town”; “Mexican seats” in movie theaters and “Mexican days” at the public swimming pools--usually on the day the pool was to be drained and cleaned. But perhaps the most tragic and painful form of segregation was in public education.

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In every California community with a sizable Mexican American population, schools were segregated; sometimes it was just a “Mexican” room, but most commonly each district had an identified “Mexican” school. The Orange County superintendent of schools even denoted each designated school with the word “Mexican” in parenthesis in his annual reports.

Southern California had created a segregated agrarian society based on citrus and Mexican American labor much the same as the South had created a cotton society with the work of African Americans. This “citrus society” persisted until World War II, when a group of common men and women with an uncommon American spirit decided to fight the system they saw as unjust. They fought not for themselves, but rather for that which strikes passion in all parents: their children’s future.

In Orange County, Gonzalo Mendez, a tenant farmer in Westminster, and a group of Mexican American World War II veterans asked a fundamental question about their communities: If we are good enough to fight and die alongside Anglos, then why are my children not good enough to attend the same schools as their children? Early in 1945, They filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts--Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena (now eastern Orange)--seeking an injunction that would order their schools’ integration.

Two years later, despite resistance by the school districts, a great deal of effort by community organizers and a tremendous amount of personal time and money expended by the Mendez family, school segregation was no more in California. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on April 14, 1947, that school districts could not segregate on the basis of national origin--that is, that the authorities could not make children go to separate, even if equal, schools simply because they were of Mexican descent.

The case had an impact on American life beyond the “citrus society.” Gov. Earl Warren pushed the Legislature into repealing laws that segregated Asian and Native American schoolchildren. (Mexicans were not specifically mentioned in the statutes, but some districts not involved in Mendez argued that Mexicans were Native Americans, while others listed them as “Spanish”; Mexicans are, of course, a mix of both.) Warren went on to write the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending school segregation across the United States, as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1954.

The Mendez case was Brown vs. Board of Education for Mexican Americans in California. While informal segregation replaced legally sanctioned segregation, the decision inspired and gave hope to a people who only wanted an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

I am a direct beneficiary of Mendez and the dreams it sought to secure. I grew up four blocks from the “Mexican” schools in El Modena, now the site of a supermarket. I didn’t learn about them until I went to college and then to law school, and even then it was only through independent research, not in the classroom. In high school, I did learn about the “Spanish” and their missions, the Anglo settlers and the Gold Rush, Pat Brown and California water and other important persons and events in California history, but not about the events that most directly affected me, not about the people who came before me.

Orange City Councilman Fred Barrera, who attended both segregated and integrated schools, once said, “Anything you blend comes out better, whether it be stew or cement, but it takes time.” Things are better, perhaps much better, but hardly complete. I often ask myself why we were not informed of our own history. I suppose it is easier to forget a troubled past then to confront it. But the difficult lessons of the past still have much to teach us about living in the present and shaping the future. Perhaps some of us would not be so quick to judge everyone in our state “on a level playing field” or say that there is equal opportunity for all if we were to look at our unpleasant but not too distant past and see how it lingers with us today. For example, only 3% of attorneys in California are Latino, despite all our “progress” since Mendez and a Latino population of almost 30%. Before we end programs like affirmative action in our colleges and institute anti-immigrant policies that would remove children from our schools and once again segregate whole populations from society, let us remember our past and strive not to re-create it.

The remembering must begin in and be maintained by our schools. Sadly, not one of the four school districts in the landmark Mendez decision has planned a single event commemorating it.

Gonzalo Mendez, now deceased, and his wife Felicitas recently were honored for their contributions by the Los Angeles County Mexican American Bar Assn. But the Mendez story is still waiting to be retold in a lasting manner, to inform, inspire and protect future generations against a return to the injustices of a bygone era.


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