By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
With the backing of Chapman, Robbie hopes to solidify this recovery of historical memory by creating a Mendez v. Westminster archive and teaching programs. But she’s learning that publicizing history isn’t always easy—especially when many of the protagonists are still alive.
The Ramirezes, in particular, feel like they’re being written out of this newly filled historical gap.
“We are the et als,” proclaims Lorenzo’s daughter, Phyllis Ramirez, referring to the case’s full legal name. “Sandra doesn’t even give us that.”
* * *
A display case near the elevators on the third floor of Chapman’s Leatherby Libraries holds mementos of Mendez v. Westminster—pictures of Sylvia, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez; the postage stamp; a copy of a 1944 petition by Westminster parents asking the school board to desegregate schools; history books that mention the lawsuit; and Robbie’s documentary. The other families involved in the lawsuit are included in the form of their patriarchs’ names on small tags.
This is the beginning of Chapman’s archives on the case. Around the corner is its eventual showcase: the Mendez v. Westminster Group Study Room. It’s understandably bare-bones at this point: dry-erase board, a couple of chairs, a table equipped with electrical plugs and Internet jacks, and framed pictures from families of the nearby Cypress Street barrio, the historic Mexican-American neighborhood just west of the Chapman campus. But the view from this corner space is stunning: overlooking Chapman’s athletic fields, stretching out to the Orange foothills and into the San Bernardino Mountains.
“We’re just getting started,” Robbie says apologetically. In addition to her staff job at Chapman, she is also working toward a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the private university. But Robbie’s dreams are even grander: She wants to be the director of the archive and eventually build a mini-Museum of Tolerance that goes beyond Mendez v. Westminster. She plans to document and collect the entirety of America’s era of segregation through oral histories, pictures, clothing, anything.
“This is an opportunity on a national level, an opportunity to let kids learn,” she says. “There’s a whole civil-rights tourism opportunity that can bring a lot of people to Orange County. If Topeka, Kansas, can bring in thousands of tourists to its National Historic Site, imagine what Orange County can do?
“Mendez blows away the wall of what the civil-rights movement is about, and I want this collection to be the heart of that,” Robbie adds. “Brown v. Board of Education was great, but Mendez is about all of us. It showed all people fought for everyone.”
The credit Robbie gets for bringing the case to the public limelight is warranted. It was her documentary—shown on PBS stations across the country—that introduced the case on a large scale to America. It was she who helped pester California lawmakers to incorporate the case into teaching guidelines for fourth and 11th grades, the levels at which California elementary- and high-school students learn about American history. “Now, teachers can see it and think, ‘What’s that?’ And we can hook them up to teach them the history,” Robbie says, speaking faster with every point. “I tell Chapman it’s an opportunity for them to fill in the need.”
Robbie was born in Tucson, Arizona, to American-born parents of Mexican descent who moved the family to Westminster when she was 1. She can’t remember any moments of racism except one misinterpreted act: “When I was 7, I was a Brownie in the Girl Scouts. One day, I was walking from school, and a boy kept calling me ‘Brownie.’ I thought he was making fun of my brown skin, so I punched him!”
After graduating from Westminster High School, Robbie attended Orange Coast College before transferring to UC Santa Barbara. She didn’t participate much in college’s eternal ethnic struggles—members of the Chicano student group MEChA didn’t like her because “they said I wasn’t Mexican enough because I didn’t speak Spanish”—but she did pen an article for the school’s Daily Nexus newspaper on gender discrimination. Robbie was working as a waitress at a restaurant where women worked the lunch shift, men the night. “I thought what they were doing was wrong,” she says. “Anyone who works restaurants knows the tips are better at night.”
The article caused a flap in Santa Barbara; the restaurant soon changed its policy. Robbie earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, but she returned to Orange County to work for The Orange County Register, leading tours of its offices and printing plants. “I had an idea that I wanted to be a journalist, to tell stories, but I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door,” she says. Dropping those ambitions after a couple of years, Robbie worked in human resources for a couple of companies, married and had two children.
She says her life changed forever on Sept. 3, 2000, when the Register published a recap of Mendez v. Westminster to mark the opening of the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School. Robbie remembers the moment vividly: She was sitting at the kitchen table in the Westminster house where she grew up, having just dropped the kids off at school, enjoying the morning paper. “I had never heard of this story. The Mendez family looked like my aunts and uncles. Why didn’t I know about this story? I was angry, ashamed, and then I felt excited. I knew what I had to do. This was a story everyone had to learn. It was like all the puzzle pieces of my life were thrown up in the air, fell, connected and put a different picture together that I had never envisioned.”