Whatever Happened to the Santa Ana Four?

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

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Eventually, the Santa Ana Four got out on bail as the government pursued their cases. The INS moved quickly to try the men. Gonzales and Esparza—whose cases never received the same notoriety as those of Cruz and Espinoza—turned themselves in for deportation in the summer of 1953; after Esparza's case failed, LACPFB lawyer Richard W. Petherbridge told a fellow attorney, "I somehow doubt that this will terminate my contacts with the Bureau of Immigration. That this is the case is brought freshly to mind every morning on the way to work, when I drive by a concentration camp on the edge of town, into which busloads of 'wetbacks' are brought every day."

LACPFB lawyers won an extension for Espinoza, but the government clearly wanted him gone. A director for the Los Angeles office of the INS told reporters he didn't like the LACPFB because "they work from directives and not for the good of the individuals who are involved in deportation proceedings." He singled out Espinoza for criticism because he wouldn't disassociate with the LACPFB.

In Espinoza's appeal hearing, Herman R. Landon—head of the Los Angeles bureau of the INS—argued that Espinoza should be deported because he "failed to make a showing" that he was of "good moral character." Espinoza lost his appeal and was ordered deported on Sept. 16, 1954—Mexican Independence Day.

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

Justo Cruz fared better than the rest of the Santa Ana Four. The government ordered him to report for deportation on Dec. 18, 1952, much earlier than anyone else. But LACPFB lawyers won a stay by arguing Cruz was eligible to apply for discretionary relief since both of his children were severely ill and had no mother.

The strategy bought him a couple of months before the government tried to deport him again in February 1953. This time, Los Angeles Councilman Ed Roybal intervened on his behalf and won Cruz a yearlong stay. Once that year finished, INS officials ordered Cruz to turn himself in on Sept. 29, 1954. During this time, FBI officials tried twice to dupe Cruz into signing his own deportation papers, according to an angry letter LACPFB lawyer William M. Samuels penned to Landon.

By this time, Cruz was becoming a poster child of sorts for the way the United States treated its Mexicans. Operation Wetback was launched in 1954, and the government rounded up Mexicans—both legal and illegal—by the thousands, housing them in virtual concentration camps before shipping them back to Mexico. Cruz's story would become one of the centerpieces in Shame of a Nation, a booklet put out by the LACPFB to illustrate the effects the government's campaign against immigrants had on working-class people.

The LACPFB persisted in trying to set Cruz free, finally winning a hearing with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C. The board agreed that deporting Cruz would put undue burden on his American-born children, and Cruz's case was finally dismissed in 1959. There was one catch: A letter dated Aug. 13, 1959, written by Samuels to the INS revealed that immigration authorities put Cruz under permanent parole, requiring him to meet with the INS monthly for the rest of his life. Samuels asked that a yearly written report instead be filed, as there was "no reasonable basis for the requirement." It's not known whether the INS complied with Samuels' request.

Nevertheless, Cruz was free, and he retired to his Santa Ana home. He died on Dec. 2, 1971, at age 83.

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Last week, Sylvia Mendez and Sandra Robbie rode their orange Volkswagen bus in Huntington Beach's Fourth of July parade. The two ladies have spent the past couple of months crisscrossing the United States in the van, spreading the gospel of Mendez v. Westminster, of which Sylvia was a plaintiff.

But parade organizers rejected their application. They initially told Mendez and Robbie they "didn't have enough entertainment value." After the two raised a well-deserved stink in the local media, an organizer confessed to Orange County Registercolumnist Yvette Cabrera "nobody had heard of this issue. . . . The history of this was totally unknown to the committee."

Thus goes Orange County's Latino history. Latinos have always played a major role in the Orange County story, but many of their contributions get ignored. The Great Flood of 1938, the aforementioned 1936 Citrus War, Mendez v. Westminster,and the Santa Ana Four. There are only parenthetical mentions of the Santa Ana Four in history books, daily newspaper clippings of the time and oral histories. Do a Google search on the Four, and you'll find "McCarthyism, Mexican Americans, and the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, 1950-1954," an article by Garcilazo in the 2001 issue of the academic journal Western Historical Quarterly—but little else. Not even the Orange County Mexican American Historical Society, the county's preeminent archives on local Latino history, had heard of the case when contacted for this story.

What's even more telling about the mysteries of OC's Latino past is that many of the people with firsthand knowledge of the Santa Ana Four either wouldn't speak to the Weekly or had conflicting memories of the events.

Augie Morales remembers the Espinozas well. Now 71 years old and living in San Diego County, Morales graduated from Orange High School in 1954 and was good friends with Elias Espinoza's son Carlos Marx. "When they deported [Elias], the family was flabbergasted," he says. "They didn't know which way to go. It came as a shock to all of us."

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