OC's Famous Desegregation Case Finally Gets Its Historical Due, But One Family Feels Left Out

Separate But Unequal
Orange County’s most famous desegregation case is finally getting its historical due. So why is one of the plaintiff families upset?

When Lorenzo Ramirez returned to Roosevelt Elementary School in Orange’s El Modena barrio the fall of 1944, he didn’t imagine the visit would help desegregate California’s public schools. As a 13-year-old immigrant from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Ramirez attended Roosevelt in the 1920s as one of its few Mexican students, earning commendations from teachers for high grades. After finding a bride, Ramirez moved with his wife to Whittier to work as a foreman at the massive Murphy Ranch. He enrolled three sons in the mostly white neighborhood school, where they met no resistance from teachers or fellow students on account of their ethnicity.

“You never thought about being Mexican,” says Lorenzo’s son, Silvino Ramirez, now 74. “The white children would ask us for tacos, but that was about it.”

Students in front of Roosevelt School, El Modena (1922)
Courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.
Students in front of Roosevelt School, El Modena (1922)
Lorenzo and Josefina Ramirez, with their sons Silvino and Ignacio, mid-1930s. The two boys' rejection by the all-white Roosevelt Elementary spurred Lorenzo to sue the El Modeno School District
Courtesy of the Ramirez family
Lorenzo and Josefina Ramirez, with their sons Silvino and Ignacio, mid-1930s. The two boys' rejection by the all-white Roosevelt Elementary spurred Lorenzo to sue the El Modeno School District

Lorenzo moved his family back to El Modena in 1944. When he tried to enroll Silvino and his brothers at Roosevelt, school administrators told him they now had to go to the all-Mexican, run-down Lincoln School next door–the same campus Lorenzo once attended alongside white children. None of the Ramirez children spoke Spanish, but it didn’t matter; this new Roosevelt school was whites-only.

“He had gone to school with all of [those school administrators], and that’s where the anger came,” says Lorenzo’s widow, Josefina, now 96 but still sharp of mind, in Spanish. “At first, he just walked around and said nothing. When he was mad, he didn’t say anything. Then he told me, ‘I’m not going to live on my knees in front of the Americans.’”

Lorenzo Ramirez joined other Orange County Latino families in filing a class-action lawsuit. In the 1946 case, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Gonzalo Mendez and Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomillo, and Ramirez respectively sued the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts for discriminating against Mexican elementary-school students. Ramirez testified in the case that became known as Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. But Lorenzo never talked about the trial with his family.

“Everything he suffered, he didn’t share it with us,” Josefina says. “He didn’t want us to feel bad about anything that was going on. All he would tell me is, ‘You take care of our little chicks; I’ll take care of everything else.’”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul McCormick ruled in favor of the families, and the four Orange County school districts had to integrate their schools. But the Ramirez children remained in the dark about their dad’s participation in this landmark desegregation case for decades—along with most of the state and the country.

Mendez v. Westminster is the most-publicized civil-rights case no one has ever heard of. It was heavily covered in its day, attracting coverage in The Nation, The New York Times, La Opinión and the Santa Ana Register. The Yale Law Review wrote in 1947 that because of its success, “There is little doubt that the Supreme Court will be presented with a case involving segregation in schools within the next year or two.” Thurgood Marshall—who argued Brown v. Board of Education and became the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court—filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the families when the school districts unsuccessfully appealed the case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947. That year, California Governor Earl Warren—the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who presided over Brown—cited Mendez v. Westminster when he signed a law outlawing segregation at all California schools.

The case never made it into the official Orange County story, though, existing only in the historical margins of ethnic studies. But this wrong is finally being righted. Mendez v. Westminster is included in California public-school teaching guidelines to help teachers prepare their courses on American history. There’s a Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana, as well as a Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center high school in Boyle Heights (Felicitas was Gonzalo’s Puerto Rican wife). In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the case.

Much of the credit for restoring the case to its rightful perch in the country’s civil-rights struggles goes to Sandra Robbie, a Chapman University administrative assistant at the College of Educational Studies whose enthusiasm in retelling its story is matched only by her ambition to ensure the nation never forgets. Robbie and Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo who took the witness stand as a 9-year-old girl to argue for school desegregation, travel across the country to tell the Mendez family’s story to crowds ranging from elementary-school kids to graduate-school programs. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is interested in exhibiting a display on the case. And a 30-minute documentary Robbie produced about the lawsuit, Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children (Para Todos los Niños), won a local Emmy award in 2003.

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