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Latino Activists Oppose Naming School After Ex-Superintendent

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It originally appeared to be a good idea: name Oxnard’s newest campus after Norman Brekke, the former superintendent known for starting the district’s year-round schools.

But trustees will reconsider that 1994 decision during a meeting tonight.

Some Latino activists vehemently oppose the name, saying that Brekke thwarted efforts to integrate the campuses during the 1970s and shouldn’t have his name on a new school that will predominately house Latino students. The school is scheduled to open July 29.

Brekke was then an assistant superintendent, and what role he played in the busing is unclear. Some charge that he stalled integration efforts. Others said he followed the federal court order as best he could.

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Trustee Jim Suter said Brekke did not have the power to slow or speed up integration efforts.

“He couldn’t slow it down,” Suter said. “No way could he slow it down. The board runs the show.”

Brekke, who lives in Oregon, declined requests to be interviewed.

In the past, trustees may have stood by their decision to name the school after Brekke. But the composition of the school board has changed dramatically since 1994. And Latino activists say they brought up the matter now rather than three years ago, because they felt the present board would be more likely to respond to the name change.

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With four Latino members--Francisco Dominguez, Arthur Lopez, Susan Alvarez and Mary Barreto--more Latinos now serve on the five-member board than all the Latino trustees combined during the district’s 127-year history.

Both Juan Soria, an Oxnard activist who died of a heart attack earlier this month, and Tila Estrada, an Oxnard businesswoman, have been spearheading efforts to have the name changed.

“If you can right a wrong, there’s nothing wrong with it, we have to try,” Estrada said. At the time of the school naming, the white majority routinely voted together, with Alvarez and Barreto often on the losing side.

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Lopez joined the board in 1995, and the newest member, Dominguez, an outspoken community leader from El Concilio del Condado, took his seat in November.

It was Dominguez who placed the name issue on the agenda.

The meeting will start at 7 p.m. at the district office at 1051 S. A St. in Oxnard.

The name issue also brings up a larger question for many Latinos: Considering Oxnard School District’s checkered past toward Latinos, how significant is the racial composition of the board?

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“It’s very significant,” said Jose Mendoza, the county’s director of Migrant Education. “Intuitively we all realize having this representation is a significant step towards equal and fair representation and from a historical perspective we rejoice.”

While racism can take subtle forms, old-timers recall being subjected to insults in the Oxnard School District.

Speaking Spanish, now common throughout the district in bilingual programs, was once viewed as a punishable act.

Some recalled the days when uttering words en~ Espanol meant having your mouth thoroughly rinsed with soap, or your behind paddled. But there were still occasional slips of the tongue.

“While you’re playing with your friend, you forget,” said Mendoza, who attended Ramona School in the early 1940s, presently used by a nonprofit organization. “You would say ‘throw me the ball, throw me the ball [in Spanish].’ The teacher would hear, take you into the classroom and WHACK.”

Before he died, Soria recounted his early memories on campus.

On his first day at the now-razed Haydock School, his mother held his hand and then left him with the principal. The principal led him into a segregated classroom for Latinos.

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In his school playground, a white line separated the white students from the Latino and black children. In the third grade, Soria and other Latino students--but not Anglo students--were invited to the Walnut Festival in the unincorporated area of El Rio. The field trip consisted of putting the Latino kids to work, picking walnuts for the growers.

Soria worried that his own children were being provided with a poorer quality of education, housed in rundown campuses in the La Colonia area. So he and a other school parents filed a lawsuit against the district in 1970, arguing that the predominantly Latino La Colonia children were being segregated.

A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed, and in 1971 found that the children of La Colonia were provided with unequal educational opportunities.

What followed was a tumultuous period of busing. Many Latinos urged the board to integrate the campuses quickly. But numerous white parents, and some Latinos, argued that they wanted their children to attend neighborhood schools rather than being bused to La Colonia.

Trustee Suter said that not only did Brekke not oppose integration efforts, but he probably did the most of any superintendent up to his time to further the cause of bilingual education by hiring more bilingual teachers, district officials and administrators.

But his critics maintain their stance.

Estrada will propose the board name the school name after Soria.

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“He has done so much, oh, it goes on and on and on, an entire list of nonpaying work for the farm workers, school system and for the civil rights amendment, and for the integration of the Oxnard schools,” she said. “It’s very appropriate he be put in the names that will be brought up for discussion.”

During the last two and a half decades, Latinos have also been making a greater push to get more representation on the Oxnard campuses in the form of administrators and teachers.

“It basically has to do with the fact that they have prepared themselves for this position and the need and demand for them is also there,” Duarte said of the present board composition. “If we were living in a predominantly Italian, Irish, or any other ethnic group, you would find yourself having those types of teachers, those types of trustees.”

Until 1990, when Mary Barreto joined the board, only two Latinos had served and then only briefly: Rachel (Murgia) Wong from ’71-'73 and Jim Gallardo from ’82-'83.

Former trustee Jean Harrison recalled what it was once like when there were no Latinos on board.

“I remember several parents who could speak English, but weren’t comfortable talking to them [the board] about emotional issues, about some deeply felt problem, they just weren’t comfortable,” Harrison said. “Once Mary came to the board, she was able to speak directly to them and she could tell us what they said.”

But Harrison also adds, “Focusing on the fact that they are Hispanic or Latino heritage is not the right focus to me. The right focus is do they care about the children in the district and isn’t that the chief purpose for the board?”

Suter agrees: “I think that bringing race into this is the worst thing that could ever happen. We should not be looking at each other as racial people, but just as people.”

Estrada shares some of those beliefs.

“It takes a long time to get through the political system and get people elected. But I also need to remind you that we Latinos vote for who does a good job, the best job. and it’s not always Latino,” said Estrada. “That’s not to say there are not Anglos that have a heart for our Hispanic community. I know plenty of them.”

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But it has become clear that many have pinned high hopes on these trustees.

“My question is ultimately a challenge to you, ‘What will be your contribution to the history of Latinos,’ ” said Vicente Barron, the then-president of the Oxnard chapter of the Assn. of Mexican American Educators, during a meeting in December. “I believe you give a unique perspective, you have common ties, language and customs to this community and those kinds of things should provide you with the sensitivity and knowledge to act as board members who act for positive change within our community.”

Yet many Latinos say there are still considerable barriers that have to be conquered in the Oxnard School District.

A common complaint from Latino parents is that they feel a lack of respect from many district employees, said school parent leader Celia Herrera.

“We have to change the school district,” Herrera said, speaking in Spanish. “We need to leave behind the people who don’t open up doors to Latinos or listen to us. Don’t treat us like ignorant people, because we do not speak English, or as if we are not intelligent.”

In the past, some Latino parents complained that they called the school district only to have the person at the other end hang up because they don’t speak English well.

“While there is some communication, sometimes understanding is lacking,” Herrera said.

Many say even with the present school board composition, there is still a long way to go.

“Don’t think just because there are four [Latinos] on the board, there’s no more racism or prejudism,” Mendoza said. “It still exists in Oxnard. . . . I wouldn’t start waving the flag of equality yet.”


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