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The end of 'Mexican schools': How Latino families in OC sparked desegregation 70 years ago

In 1947, a group of parents won a federal court case that forced school districts in Orange County to stop segregating Latino students. Seventy years later, schools are again deeply segregated.
Jill Replogle
In 1947, a group of parents won a federal court case that forced school districts in Orange County to stop segregating Latino students. Seventy years later, schools are again deeply segregated.

"Four miles from Disneyland, you're going to be able to see the last standing Mexican school building from the segregation era,” Sandra Robbie said as she herded a small group of Chapman University students and a reporter onto a tour bus.

We had come along to learn about Orange County’s segregationist past on the 70th anniversary of a federal court case involving five families and four OC school districts.

The case, Mendez, et al v. Westminster, led to the end of separate schools for Mexican children throughout the Southwest and is seen as a precursor to the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.

"Most folks think of the civil rights struggle as something that happened only in the South,” Robbie said. "And in fact, Orange County played a huge part in changing our nation.”

Robbie has spent the last 15 years raising awareness about Mendez v. Westminster, starting with a documentary she produced in 2002 about the case, “For all the children/Para todos los niños.”

The first stop on the tour was the Cypress Street school, thought to be the last standing “Mexican school" in Southern California. Now owned by Chapman University, the school — like thousands of others in California, Arizona, Texas and other states — was for Latino children only in the first half of the 20th century.

Anglo students went to separate schools. 
School administrators, including those named in Mendez v. Westminster, often justified separate schools or classrooms for children of Latin American decent by saying they needed special help with the English language, despite the fact that many of the students were born in the U.S. and spoke English. 

Children who attended schools in the El Modena School District, one of the four districts targeted in Mendez v. Westminster, also started the school year later than their Anglo peers so that they could work the walnut harvest in Orange County. 
Gonzalo Mendez, 80, remembers attending a Mexican school in Santa Ana as a child. “We had to walk past Franklin [ the school for Anglo kids]. It was only two blocks away.” 

Mendez said he didn’t think much of it at the time. "I was just a kid. But later on in life ... I was talking to one of the white girls and she used to go by the Mexican school. And she, as a young girl, she thought we were all criminals, that's why we were kept away from them.” 

Mendez’s parents, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, eventually joined the lawsuit that ended separate schools for Mexican and Anglo children. A federal judge ruled that the El Modena, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster school districts were violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and California law. 

The districts subsequently lost their appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and were ordered to desegregate. 

Driving through Olde Town Orange, Robbie pointed out other, historical sites of discrimination, including a former movie theater where Latinos were forced to sit in the balcony to watch films. The bus also stopped at a public pool that, in 1936, allowed Mexicans to swim only on Mondays. 

Such policies eventually ended, but today, many schools and neighborhoods are still deeply segregated. 
"California is the most segregated place in the country for Latino students," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He praised the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mendez, but said its reach was limited because it didn’t come with a clear mandate for how to desegregate schools, and there was little follow-up.

Shortly after the appeals court decision, a group of Anglo parents who lived adjacent to the mostly white Tustin School District petitioned the Orange County Board of Education to leave the El Modena School District and join Tustin, according to an analysis of the case by Christopher Arriola, now a deputy district attorney in the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.

They won and more white flight followed. 

“The next steps didn't happen,” Orfield said. "And nobody in California has been thinking really seriously about what could be done to deal with the extreme isolation of Latino or Chicano kids for a real long time."

Orfield’s research shows that today, Latino students in California attend schools that are on average 84 percent nonwhite. Their fellow students at those schools are also usually poor, and the schools themselves are poor performers when it comes to test scores and getting kids into college.

Orfield said segregation is equally bad for children of color and for white kids — they may not be prepared for adulthood in increasingly diverse California. 
“Anybody who thinks they're protecting their kid by isolating them from contact across race and class lines doesn't know what kind of society they're going to be living in,” he said.

Orfield says de facto school segregation today is due to a combination of action and inaction. Education and housing policies have helped re-segregate schools and neighborhoods, while policymakers have done little to reverse the trend, he said.

Back on the tour bus, Robbie made a hopeful pitch for the legacy of OC’s landmark desegregation case. She noted that people of diverse races and backgrounds joined the group of determined Latino parents to win Mendez versus Westminster. Thurgood Marshall, the former Supreme Court justice and famed NAACP lawyer who went on to win Brown v. Board of Education, wrote a court brief in support of the parents. 

“I think it's unique in our civil rights history because it really blows down the walls,” Robbie said of the Mendez case. 

Today we put up those walls ourselves, she said.