In San Juan Capistrano's Schools, White Kids Are Painted Into One Corner, Latino Kids Into Another

School Colors
In San Juan Capistrano’s schools, white kids are painted into one corner, Latino kids into another. How did this happen?

One early January morning in 1994, Yohana Sandoval, an eighth grader and student vice president at Marco Forster Middle School in San Juan Capistrano, was approached by a friend who seemed shaken and was holding a piece of paper. They were in first-period English. “I just remember that she read it to me and I started crying,” she says. “I remember people reading the flier and you couldn’t help but cry. Everyone would just cry.”

That morning, 1,200 fliers had been stuffed neatly into every locker on campus. About 300 more were left in lockers at Laguna Beach High School. The fliers were signed by San Diego County-based group WAR (White Aryan Resistance).

Yohana Sandoval was in the eighth grade when she and six fellow students painted this mural in 1994
Jonathan Ho
Yohana Sandoval was in the eighth grade when she and six fellow students painted this mural in 1994
Yohana Sandoval
Jonathan Ho
Yohana Sandoval

“We just knew it wasn’t something a kid had made because of the way things were written,” Sandoval says about the grotesque racist marks about Mexicans, which included comparing them to pigs. “It just said really horrible things about the culture and the people and that created a lot of emotion and sadness among all of us, not just Mexicans.”

At the time, Marco Forster was about one-quarter Latino. “I remember talking about it, period after period. Our teachers were very supportive, they gave us the space to talk about it because all we could do was cry. The whole school just sort of stopped,” Sandoval says. The incident was filed as a hate crime with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Conversations between students and teachers on campus led to the idea to paint a mural, Sandoval says. She became one of the coordinators of the mural project, and one of its seven artists, a mix of white, Latino and other students who came up with the design by taking various student submissions and blending them together. “A lot of thought went into it, you know, from the quote to selecting every image. It wasn’t just something that we put together in an hour.”

The end result was an eclectic mix of symbols chosen from the various designs submitted: the American and Mexican flags, an Aztec calendar, a group of rainbow-colored kids, a candelabra, corn husks, roses, and the image and quote of revered 19th-century Mexican President Benito Juarez. The students chose his most famous quote for the mural: “Between individuals, as between nations, respect for another’s rights is peace.” It was painted in English and Spanish. The group spent weeks on the project, coming in on weekends and during Spring Break until it was finished. “The only thing I remember thinking about was we wanted unity. We wanted to represent Mexico and America as a united symbol. That was our only intention, really,” Sandoval says.

Now a kindergarten teacher at San Juan Elementary school, Sandoval speaks softly but firmly when she considers the events of the past few weeks. Her mural has become the visual focal point in a cacophonous debate over whether her old middle school is being run like “a Mexican public school.”

Kim McCarthy, a former school parent, made the allegation publicly at a school-board meeting in early July. McCarthy says she wanted to wait to unleash her critique of the school until her daughter was finished there and a new board majority had taken office. McCarthy’s litany of critiques, presented in bullet form to the board and published about a month later in TheOrange County Register, focused on the presence of the Spanish language at the school, whether on signs, school forms, spoken between students or parents and administrators, or on symbols such as the Mexican flag painted alongside the American flag in the student mural.

“Please ask Marco Principal Carrie Bertini to stop promoting the use of the Spanish language, thus enabling Latinos to create Mexico within our public-school system,” McCarthy asked the board July 11. “Maybe then these students will better assimilate.”

The words assimilation and integration carry a lot of weight in this small city, where Latinos are now 33 percent of the population and anti-immigrant sentiment festers. By the time San Juan Capistrano’s public-school students get to the middle school in question, they’ve spent their first six years in one of four elementary schools, which many in the city say are a prime example of modern-day, suburban de facto segregation.

Stacks of school-district documents, old news reports and the memories of those in town reveal that the most polarizing debates in the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) have occurred when boundary changes involved mixing poorer, predominantly Latino students with the district’s affluent, predominantly white population. A complicated stew of racial sentiment, “white flight,” a swell in immigration and conflicting district boundary policies over the years have contributed to the separation.

The most recent battle was in 2005, when a wave of protest over the ethnic makeup of a new high school in San Juan Capistrano, which was was set to be nearly half Latino, resulted in a lawsuit against CUSD over its policy to redraw regional boundaries in order to balance the school’s population. The district settled the suit and agreed to abandon language that references race and ethnicity for boundary policies.

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