By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.”
Robbie waited until her youngest daughter entered first grade, then enrolled in the television-and-production department at Golden West College, home to KOCE-TV Channel 50. She interned for the station’s Real Orange program, working behind-the-scenes and also on-camera as a host and conducting on-the-street interviews. Eventually, she pitched the idea of a documentary on Mendez v. Westminster to her bosses, who approved.
“People could see the story in half an hour,” says Robbie. “It was the first time I had ever done something longer than two minutes. It was perfect to get the story out there.”
KOCE aired the documentary in 2002, and the calls started coming in for screenings and speaking engagements for both Robbie and Sylvia Mendez. But the film had critics. Some wondered why she included the Munemitsu family: They were Japanese farmers who leased their Westminster land to Gonzalo Mendez so they wouldn’t lose the property during the Japanese internment of World War II but, technically, had nothing to do with the case.
“How can I not tell their story?” Robbie replies. “It’s important. It showed that this didn’t just involve Mexicans—it involved all races. Everyone’s story is important.”
More criticism would come—much more.
* * *
In Riverside, on a 5-acre lot accessible only by an unpaved road, the Ramirez clan fumes.
In 1964, Lorenzo Ramirez bought this property and moved here because of his failing health. He passed away two years later. Josefina and Silvino live on the sprawling compound, which includes homes, fruit trees, emptied swimming pools and a small army of Chihuahuas that loudly bark at visitors for a couple of minutes, then trot off to sleep.
Phyllis and her siblings have been Robbie’s fiercest critics, openly challenging her during otherwise-polite panel discussions and film screenings. “I’ve caught her in so many mistakes,” declares Phyllis, whose given name is Felicitas (like the Mendez matriarch). “She’s not a reliable person.”
Her main complaint is that Robbie’s telling of the case, the telling that increasingly is becoming the unquestioned narrative, focuses too much on the Mendez family and barely mentions the other families involved, often reducing their contributions to a sentence. Indeed, the only mention of the Estradas, Guzmans, Palomillos and Ramirezes in For All the Children is a seconds-long glimpse of the original lawsuit naming all the plaintiffs and defendants. Lorenzo Ramirez’s remarkable tale was not documented in any telling of the Mendez v. Westminster case the Weekly reviewed for this story.
The Ramirezes didn’t find out about their connection to Mendez v. Westminster until 1998, when Phyllis’ brother Henry discovered the case in a history book. “I was in awe of my father,” admitted Phyllis, a retired first-grade teacher. “But we weren’t going to do anything about it. I told my girlfriends about it, but that’s it. It’s important that it happened and that it was a base to build [the civil-rights movement] on. It was a great thing, but we didn’t have to advertise it.”
In 2003, the family attended a program specifically celebrating the forgotten families of the decision that was held by the Orange County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). There, Ramirez claims, Robbie wrongfully identified her family as being from Garden Grove. She also insists a panel discussion portrayed all the families except the Mendezes as fearful, apathetic and having to be prodded by Gonzalo Mendez to fight segregation.
“My mother got so mad that she left the room. My dad was not afraid,” Phyllis says. “He wasn’t the type of man who would take charity from anyone. They portrayed him like a fool.”
The family attended a screening of For All the Children at Chapman a year later and were furious there was no mention of their father. “Sandra didn’t research,” she says. “She just showed what the Mendez family told her.”
To rectify what they maintain as their disappearance in the Mendez v. Westminster story, the Ramirez clan has been creating its own cardboard display showing pictures of Lorenzo, the infant Silvino, and the Lincoln and Roosevelt schools. It’s mostly done for their edification; none of the Ramirezes goes to schools to lecture about the case.