*     *     *

Robbie is pained by the Ramirezes’ accusation she’s telling only the Mendezes’ story to the exclusion of others. “This is the hardest part,” she says. “As any storyteller will tell you, you can only focus on one story at a time. But I don’t want the others to get overlooked. I see this as a lifetime’s work. A genre. The Ramirezes will get a book. The Palomillos, the Estradas—everyone’s story is going to be told.”

Advocating for the inclusion of Mendez v. Westminster in the official Orange County saga has led to other confrontations for Robbie. In 2007, organizers for the Huntington Beach Fourth of July parade initially dismissed a Volkswagen bus Robbie and Sylvia Mendez use as a movable museum on the case because none had heard of Mendez v. Westminster and, once informed about it, deemed that it didn’t have enough “entertainment value” to warrant a spot. “It appeared that this application was more about [Robbie’s] self-promotion,” a spokesperson told the Register. Only after Robbie went to the press and the parade committee received hundreds of furious complaints did they relent.

Erica Bennett, putting the finishing touches on her Mendez v. Westminster documentary
John Gilhooley
Erica Bennett, putting the finishing touches on her Mendez v. Westminster documentary

Phyllis Ramirez was delighted at the Fourth of July parade committee’s initial rejection. “I laughed,” she says. “They saw what that bus was for: more of Sandra.”

Unbalanced narrative or not, Robbie’s evangelism for Mendez v. Westminster nevertheless continues to inspire others to learn about and publicize the case. On Nov. 13, Fullerton College will debut Tales of a Golden State: The Mendez v. Westminster Story, a 40-minute documentary produced by the school’s faculty librarian, Erica Bennett. The documentary includes interviews with members of nearly all the families involved in the case—Sylvia and Geronimo Mendez; Josefina, Phyllis, Henry and Silvino Ramirez; the Munemitsu children; and even Virginia Guzman, the widow of William Guzman who reveals in the documentary that their family had filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Santa Ana Unified School district years before Mendez v. Westminster. Interspersed are scenes from Bennett’s play, El Primer Día de Clases (The First Day of Class), in which Fullerton College students dramatize the story behind the case while also reading monologues taken from court testimony. It’s part of Fullerton College’s own Mendez Project, which seeks to teach students how to publicize the decision in schools and communities across Orange County.

“It wasn’t built into the ‘official’ American-history text,” says Adela Lopez, head of the school’s ethnic-studies program and one of the people behind the Mendez Project. She first learned about the case while reading North From Mexico: A History of the Spanish-Speaking Peoples of the United States, the 1948 book by progressive historian Carey McWilliams, while a student at Cal State Long Beach in the early 1970s. After screening For All the Children in her child-development class and having Sylvia Mendez talk to her students, Lopez connected with Bennett to create the Mendez Project.

“People still look to our traditional history for validation: If it’s legit, it’s in our textbooks. If it’s not, it’s not. And if it’s in ethnic studies? It’s nothing,” says Lopez. “I try to teach my students that. Where does the notion of ‘legitimate’ history come from? Who decides that?”

Bennett enlisted students in the college’s ethnic-studies program to interview the case’s living protagonists and their descendants on camera, then taught them how to turn those transcripts into a play. The librarian screened For All the Children for the participants as a guide to their project. None of them had any theater or interview background, and most have only learned about the case through their participation in Bennett’s film.

Yadira de la Cruz plays Felicitas Mendez in El Primer Día de Clases. She grew up in Westminster, on the same street where the city’s Mexican school stood, and across the street from members of the Mendez family. But she never knew about the case until KOCE aired Robbie’s documentary. “It was late at night, and I was half-asleep,” she recalls. “When they mentioned Westminster, I thought, ‘It can’t be my Westminster—they must mean Westminster, Colorado. And it can’t be the Mendezes across the street!” But it was, and de la Cruz quickly signed up for the Mendez Project. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”

Phyllis enjoyed working with Bennett. “She interviewed all of us,” she says. It also doesn’t hurt that Tales of a Golden State begins with an interview of Josefina Ramirez.

Robbie also approves. “When I did my documentary, a colleague of mine said, ‘Mendez is over. Move on,’” she says. “In my mind, to this day, I think, ‘Oh, it’s only just begun.’”

*     *     *

History sits in front of Chapman’s Memorial Hall on the evening of Oct. 14: old, young, black, Mexican, white, Asian. They arrange themselves by family in a semi-circle, preparing for a picture, the historic building’s Doric columns and wide steps providing an appropriately grandiose background. To their right stands a group of high-school-student “ambassadors,” mostly girls wearing black skirts and bright-red suit jackets glimmering with gold buttons. They hold placards with the names of the families involved in Mendez vs. Westminster, including Marcus (as in David, the lawyer who represented the families).

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