Whatever Happened to the Santa Ana Four?

Orange County seethes with immigration raids, demonized Mexicans and appeals for amnesty. 2007? No, 1951

Change the cars, replace the auto-body-repair shops with factories, and the Cypress Street Barrio in Orange would look almost exactly as it did in the 1950s. Most of the buildings in this neighborhood attest to the era when citrus was king in Southern California—quaint wooden houses, grocery stores painted with Chicano murals, and Orange County's last operating citrus-packing house, the Villa Park Orchards Association—and the county welcomed cheap Mexican labor as long as it didn't complain. Pioneer families (some dating back to the turn of the 20th Century) still live on Cypress Street; many current and former residents held a reunion picnic in June at Orange's Hart Park to swap stories and pictures.

Only one building looks out of place in this picturesque barrio: a two-story apartment complex at 495 N. Cypress St. It's a tan, stuccoed eyesore, with a spartan, Brutalist aesthetic that dates it to the 1970s. The building is an ugly anomaly, but an apt one. This lot is where one of the Santa Ana Four met his fate.

By the summer of 1951, Justo Cruz, Augustin Esparza, Elias Espinoza and Andres Gonzales, all born in Mexico, had lived in Orange County for decades. All were in their late 50s and had American-born children. Cruz and Espinoza were respected activists in Orange County's Latino community, and Espinoza was an Army veteran who tended to a family of eight in a large house at 495 N. Cypress St.

Elias Espinoza and Justo Cruz.
Elias Espinoza and Justo Cruz.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 1951, officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) swept across Orange County's barrios. They detained Cruz, Esparza and Espinoza, bringing them to the INS offices in Los Angeles to ask them answer the most devastating question of the day: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

And yes, in one way or another, all participated in Communist Party activities during the 1930s. But that was the past; now, in their late 50s, the men just wanted to age in peace.

That didn't matter to the feds, who shipped them—along with Gonzales, who had been caught a week earlier—to San Pedro's notorious Terminal Island, where other immigrants suspected of subversive activities awaited deportation.

In the next couple of years, the men who became known as the Santa Ana Four were symbols of the crackdown on civil liberties that characterized the home front of the Cold War. Thousands of people across the country donated money and signed petitions trying to secure their release. But the government wouldn't hear it—within a year of arresting the Santa Ana Four, they ordered the men deported to Mexico with no chance of returning.

And just like that, the Santa Ana Four disappeared. Their struggle faded from the public memory and never quite notched a place in the Orange County history books. The government moved on to nab thousands more Mexicans with their Operation Wetback, and individual stories were now too numerous to publicize.

Now, the country is in a new era of anti-immigrant sentiment, this one cloaked in fear of terrorism and reconquista, rather than communism. Immigration raids, unseen for a generation, are now commonplace. Last month, immigration officersarrested 175 illegal immigrants—some with criminal records, many without—across Orange County in just one day and promised more. The week after the migramission, the Senate allowed a proposed amnesty bill to die.

The story of the Santa Ana Four is proof that an immigrant can do everything right in this county—migrate legally, work hard and raise a family—and still get deported.

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Local and national historians celebrate the 1950s as a time of progress for Orange County. The county's mighty citrus industry was enjoying its last hurrah, as new developments sprouted on former orange groves and strawberry fields (eight cities incorporated during the 1950s alone) and ranchers planned the transformation of South County into hilly suburbs. The county was also consolidating its reputation as a hotbed of strident conservatism. County voters helped elect local boy Richard Nixon as a California senator in 1950, a campaign notorious for his smearing of opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas as a communist sympathizer "right down to her [pink] underwear."

But not everything was well in paradise. The Korean War had just started, and Mexicans were entering the country in numbers unseen since the Mexican Revolution. Many were lured by the tales of countrymen who worked on American farms as part of the wartime braceroprogram.

And so, the country had a new mass of immigrants to fear and demonize. In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which ostensibly sought to change the racist immigration quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1924. But its most important clauses allowed the government to deport any immigrant suspected of participating in movements or organizations deemed dangerous to America.

The bill was so pernicious that President Harry S. Truman vetoed it. "In no other realm of our national life," he wrote, "are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration." Congress nevertheless overrode Truman's veto, with Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, one of the bill's authors, remarking, "We have in the United States today hardcore, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary, are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission, and those gates are cracking under the strain."

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