In San Juan Capistrano's Schools, White Kids Are Painted Into One Corner, Latino Kids Into Another
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).
“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.
One of the city’s most perplexing examples is the location of two elementary schools; they sit diagonally from each other on the same block—both directly adjacent to Marco Forster Middle School. Kinoshita Elementary is overwhelmingly Latino, while Del Obispo Elementary is predominantly white.
This is in stark, even ironic, contrast to the history-making Mendez vs. Westminster, the famous local civil-rights case that set the legal precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education and made “Mexican only” schools illegal in California.
“I’m not on a school board, and I can’t speak for the way they’re drawing their lines,” says San Juan Capistrano City Council member Lon Uso. “But I believe that they should make an effort whenever possible to have the most diversity that they possibly can in any school.
“With Kinoshita and Del Obispo, you can throw a rock and hit the other school,” he continues. “And to have two schools that are so different in their populations . . . I don’t know. It does give you reason to think.”
* * *
Preserved and doted on by residents and tourists alike, San Juan Capistrano has maintained what few cities in the county can boast: a small-town core that fans out from the 200-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano. The bucolic, 14-square-mile valley is one of the only outposts in South County with old narrow streets, historic neighborhoods, and the peculiar and heartily celebrated trek made by Argentine cliff swallows, who for more than a century have returned yearly to build their mud nests at the Mission. The language found on street signs and used to describe old neighborhoods such as “Los Rios” is a reminder of the city’s Spanish then Mexican incarnations before the U.S. nabbed California.
Not more than a couple of miles south from the city’s heart are Del Obispo and Kinoshita elementary schools. The two are a 57-second car drive apart, and each is visible from the other’s back yard. The schools are considered—most often casually and quietly, other times publicly—to be emblematic of the ethnic separation within San Juan Capistrano’s public schools.
In recent years, Kinoshita has become the most ethnically and socioeconomically isolated school in the district, which encompasses 56 schools in seven cities. Close to 95 percent of its students are Latino, 78 percent are learning English and 88 percent are poor. A hop, skip and a walk around the corner sits Del Obispo, which has a majority white population; 32 percent of students are Latino, one-fifth are learning English and 33 percent are poor.
San Juan Capistrano is the only city in South County that reflects the demographic twists and turns California has taken the past few decades: 33 percent of its 34,000 residents are Hispanic and 62 percent are non-Hispanic white.
Although they can peer into each other’s playgrounds, the kids at Kinoshita and Del Obispo don’t freely choose to go to one or the other school. Lines have been drawn and redrawn by the school district, fought over like micro-borders, to determine who will go to school where. With 52,000 students scattered over an area of ongoing development, CUSD is considered a “growth” district and, consequently, almost yearly goes through a boundary-redrawing process that shuffles groups of students around in order to relieve overcrowding or fill up newly built schools. The process almost always causes considerable outcry from parents.
“Everyone knows that if you’re white in this town, you send your kids to Del Obispo or Ambuehl and not to Kinoshita or San Juan Elementary,” says a prominent local parent who wishes to remain anonymous. The other two schools she mentions, Ambuehl and San Juan, sit less than a mile and a half from each other, but are almost as ethnically and socioeconomically disparate as the first two. (San Juan Elementary’s former status as the district’s most ethnically isolated school has changed in the past few years as families from around South County have enrolled in its dual-language-immersion magnet program, where all students are taught to be fluent in both English and Spanish, beginning in kindergarten.)
* * *
Yohana Sandoval remembers making harried efforts to catch up to the rest of her class when she was a student at San Juan Elementary in the late 1980s. She had arrived from Mexico with her parents at a time when the small town was less than one-fifth Latino but full of tourist-driven nostalgia for its Spanish/Mexican past. Her parents settled into one of the now predominantly Latino neighborhoods known as “The Carolinas,” a cluster of neat, well-tended small homes and apartments closed in by a gate near downtown. The 8-year-old Sandoval, who could read and write in Spanish but spoke no English, joined the nearby school.
She remembers a healthy cultural mix at the city’s oldest elementary school, which was built when the county still had wide swaths of open, undeveloped land in 1964. Within a year, Sandoval was placed in all-English classes. “I learned English faster than my peers who had grown up here with Spanish-speaking backgrounds probably because I already knew my primary language pretty well,” she says. “I knew how to read and write.”
By the time she reached Marco Forster Middle School, Sandoval ran for student-body office and was comfortable making friends with anyone, she says. “I was told I was the first Mexican ever elected to ASB [Associated Student Body],” she says, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I was told.” She felt confident going after what she wanted, she says, including her leadership role for the mural project.
When her younger sibling and a niece attended San Juan Elementary, Sandoval noticed the student demographic was shifting from a predominantly white student body to a predominantly Latino group. “Over the years,” she says, “I would look back and wonder, ‘What’s going on? Why is it happening? Are the white kids moving out of the area?’”
The white families were moving out of the area—or, at least, moving their kids out of the school. That’s how Tony Brown, a longtime resident of the historic district near San Juan Elementary, remembers it. During the 1990s, San Juan Capistrano’s Latino population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000. San Juan Elementary’s proximity to the neighborhoods with more affordable housing meant that a majority of the city’s new residents were boundaried to the school. But the real shift, says Brown, who is half-Mexican, came when his neighbors and friends began pulling their kids from the school after the demographics began to change in the early 1990s.
“Once the school hit about 33 percent Hispanic, the dynamic of ‘white flight’ kicked in,” says Brown, who also had kids at San Juan. “Then things started accelerating; a lot of people started leaving. To this day—and my house is a block away from San Juan Elementary—there are lots of families with kids in my neighborhood, and the kids don’t go to San Juan Elementary because the perception is that they won’t get a good education.”
Brown doesn’t believe that perception is accurate; back when everyone began to leave, he decided to keep his daughters in the school.
“I talked to lots of white folks back in the day. I said, ‘Why are you leaving? Stay here. You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.’ I thought the teachers were good,” he says. “They still are. But people left.”
By the time his kids finished at San Juan, says Brown, the school’s demographics had shifted from about 33 percent to about 75 percent Hispanic. “I said, ‘I’m not going to play that game.’ We kept our kids there, and I felt they did fine.”
Brown, along with other locals, including Capistrano Dispatch editor Jonathan Volzke, formed a task force during the early 1990s to work with the newcomer families and students. The group was actively involved in connecting school parents with social services; they held community forums and events about the city’s changing demographics where “we tried to bridge gaps,” Brown says. His wife was PTA president. “I was very, very involved with lots of Hispanic people in those days, and we got along with everyone,” he says.
But traces of Brown’s past involvement with his kids’ elementary school aren’t so obvious in the op-ed pieces he now writes for the local paper. Today, he vigorously speaks out at city council meetings, school board meetings and local gatherings against illegal immigration and denounces local organizations that provide services to new immigrants who are not here legally.
“I wasn’t as bothered by the issue back then. I had a house full of kids and was just trying to survive,” he says. “And the situation wasn’t as big. I only came to get agitated by things in the past couple of years.”
* * *
When she took the podium on July 11 and accused Marco Forster Principal Carrie Bertini of running the middle school like a “Mexican public school,” Kim McCarthy says, her intention was not to be divisive, but to figure out how to integrate the city’s English-learner community into the larger community. In her statement, the wide-eyed, gum-chewing Detroit native criticized Bertini for “promoting the use of Spanish,” made reference to a mural with a Mexican flag painted on it and a “Mexican man with a quote in Spanish,” and asked that the board not permit “Mexican flags to remain on the walls at Marco.”
Her critique went unnoticed for a few weeks, but a South County chapter of the Minuteman Project, in which McCarthy has an acquaintance, seized on the opportunity to send a mass e-mail denouncing the mural and included a picture of it. The group also posted McCarthy’s statements onto Craigslist; one member, Cheryl Burns, who is African-American, spoke out about the mural at a recent board meeting, stating that Marco Forster was a school that “breeds criminals.”
At the following board meeting in early August, which McCarthy did not attend, district Superintendent Woodrow Carter read a detailed rebuttal, which pointed out what he labeled the “facts” against McCarthy’s criticisms. He pointed to the school’s rapid achievement growth over the past 10 years.
Upset that she had not been telephoned by the superintendent before his public address, McCarthy appeared on KFI-AM’s John and Ken Show, began speaking out at local “coffee chats” hosted by Capistrano Dispatch editor Volzke, and two weeks ago appeared on a KOCE-TV segment about the issue. She has also made several calls, she says, to the local organizations who work with the Latino community in an effort to “get to know them.”
The media attention has drawn comments—including 937 on a recent Register article that included principal Bertini’s response.
“Deport ALL the illegal Messican [sic] parents along with their anchor babies and the problem is solved,” read one comment posted Aug. 20.
“Principal Carrie Bertini has totally lost her mind. Replace her ASAP. Tell the children they are in America now, and we speak English here. It’s not a cultural event, it’s a SCHOOL!” read another.
Such comments have sometimes surprised McCarthy. “They’re talking about illegals and all this other stuff. I never said anything about illegal anything in my statements,” she says. “My concern is over the divisiveness and enabling that’s created if you encourage kids to speak Spanish and not English.
“In retrospect, I could have said it differently. I could have used better words,” she says. “I want them out of isolation. I want to bridge the gap. It starts in the home, starts in the community, starts in the city council and starts at the school district, who are perpetuating this—and it’s pathetic.”
Bertini explains that the 35 percent of the 1,400 students who are English learners who have the lowest level at proficiency at the school are in structured English-language classes for two periods a day, and then spend the rest of their days in classes in which English is spoken. They’re not in Spanish-speaking classes, she explains. “The kids are fluent; we have maybe 20 kids who aren’t fluent on our campus, at least verbally,” she says. “Maybe writing and academically, we still need to work with them. But they’re fluent.” She’s proud, she says, of the school’s academic progress and its ranking among other similar schools (most recently, it scored an eight out of 10 when compared with schools with similar demographics throughout the state).
She probably uses Spanish during 2 percent of her day, Bertini says, and she maintains an open-door policy for those curious about the school. Although McCarthy never approached her directly about her concerns, Bertini says the incident has brought the issue into public light, which “opens it up to discussion.”
* * *
By the mid-1990s, a bulging San Juan Elementary became one of the most overcrowded schools in the district, with averages of more than 1,000 students per year. District attempts to relieve overcrowding were met with protests by area parents at the other two elementary schools. In letter after letter preserved in district archives, parents voiced their fears over having their kids’ education come to a halt if they were forced to mix with poorer, English-limited San Juan Elementary students.
The district itself sometimes conveyed mixed messages in its efforts to assuage the overcrowding issue at San Juan. In a proposed boundary change that would have sent a chunk of San Juan kids to Ambuehl or Del Obispo in the late 1990s, one report characterized the potential impact of the move to Ambuehl as positive: “A more diverse student population would be created at Ambuehl.” But a similar student move to Del Obispo would “profoundly impact [the school’s] demographic makeup,” the same report stated. Parents ferociously protested both proposals, and the district succumbed, not moving any students from San Juan to the other two predominantly white schools and instead adding a few portable classrooms to the already-cramped old campus. The district also decided to wait until the opening of a shiny new school just around the corner from Del Obispo to rework San Juan’s boundaries. The initial plan included closing down Del Obispo as an elementary school and making its buildings part of the adjacent Marco Forster Middle School. This plan was quickly dropped because Del Obispo’s enrollment was still too high, but it does at least partially explain why the three schools are now practically a continuous campus.
The district outwardly proposed a move that would balance out the populations at San Juan and Del Obispo, which were, at the time, 96 percent Latino and two-thirds white, respectively. Plans included sending a group of kids from Del Obispo to the new school, Kinoshita, along with half of San Juan’s students. Another plan included moving a group of kids from San Juan to Del Obispo. But Del Obispo parents packed district boardrooms and fiercely protested the mergers.
Ultimately, when Kinoshita opened in 2000, about 150 Del Obispo students were boundaried to the new school along with half of San Juan’s kids. None of the San Juan students were boundaried to Del Obispo.
Although Del Obispo’s demographic breakdown hasn’t changed much over the years (more than half the population is white, and one-third is Latino), it is far more diverse than Kinoshita, which looks more like San Juan once did.
“Kinoshita is a victim of white flight,” says Erin Kutnick, a mother of three who sat on a district boundary committee, is a current school-board candidate, and whose kids went to Ambuehl and Marco Forster. “Why do you think there are so many private schools in San Juan [Capistrano]?” she asks, referencing the nine in the city.
“Do you think that’s an accident or a direct correlation to the number of Latinos we have? I don’t think it’s an accident,” she says. “I think it’s parents who don’t want their kids to be exposed to a different culture. They’re doing their kids a disservice.”
Kutnick seems to have had a change of heart. In 1999, when one of the district’s proposals to relieve overcrowding at San Juan involved moving a group of its student population to Ambuehl, Kutnick wrote a letter to the district as a “concerned parent.” In the letter, dated Jan. 26, 1999, Kutnick wrote, “My fourth and most important concern has to do with the quality of education that my children will NOT receive should a large number of Spanish-speaking students be transferred to Ambuehl. It is a proven fact to have a negative impact on those who [sic] students who are in school to learn in English.”
In 2004, when Del Obispo’s population declined and the district needed to meet a budgetary shortfall, it proposed closing the school and sending students around the corner to Kinoshita. Parents showed up in droves to protest the closure; the board ultimately decided to keep it open.
District Director of Instructional Operations Jolene Dougherty says the district’s primary focus when Kinoshita opened was to relieve San Juan of its overcrowding and make sure children in the city could attend their “neighborhood school.” Would not students from Kinoshita and Del Obispo still be attending their “neighborhood” school if they were switched to one or the other, given the schools’ 0.3-mile proximity to each other? “The neighborhoods reflect the students that live around the school. They’re all neighborhood schools,” Dougherty insists with regard to the two schools. “Neighborhood schools is one of the things we were trying to achieve, and that was a bigger issue for parents than ethnicity.”
“Kinoshita was the opportunity to really mix it up. But it didn’t happen,” says Jim Williams, former executive director of the Boys and Girls Club, which sits across the street from the school. “I think they just decided, ‘We’re gonna let that sleeping dog lie.’”
The major problem with that, he says, is that kids don’t have a chance to know one another until they go to Marco Forster Middle School. He discovered, through his work with the kids at the club, that “the little ones had no problem mixing.” It’s when they get a little older, he says, that it becomes more difficult. “I was principal for a day at the middle school,” Williams says. “The Latino kids were all sitting together, and all the Anglos were all together. . . . It’s a fascinating community. There’s no overt racial disharmony, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see it’s very uncomfortable for people.”
The two principals at the elementary schools say that in their efforts to attend first and foremost to their student populations, they have not noticed any racial or ethnic discordance. “I would feel bad if there was tension going on that our kids would have to see on a daily basis,” says Del Obispo’s Eric Gruenewald, who believes his school is right in line with California demographic statistics. “It’s probably more of an adult issue than a kid issue. Kids are very accepting of all lifestyles. Sometimes, we as adults just need to remember, ‘What do we want for our kids?’”
“I get the students that I’m given, and I don’t really think about it,” says Principal Erick Fineberg, who adds that he is focused on making Kinoshita a high-achieving school. “I haven’t looked at census data on San Juan Capistrano, but we’ve all walked in the neighborhoods that our students go to. . . . I look at the communities we serve, and I don’t think about it. The kids are great; I love them. That’s all I focus on, really.”
* * *
At the Aug. 25 board meeting, with a Telemundo reporter and cameraman at district headquarters, McCarthy spoke to the board again, after comments by Lon Uso; Cheryl Burns of the Minutemen; Tony Brown, who read a prepared statement; and his wife, Orrie Brown. Several commentators focused on the position of the American flag on the Marco Forster mural, saying that laws had been broken because the flag was not bigger or higher than the Mexican flag.
When it was her turn, McCarthy called Superintendent Carter’s remarks on KOCE—where he commented that her statements about the school could be perceived as racist by some in the community—a character assassination. (Carter declined to speak to the Weekly for this story.) McCarthy reiterated some of her points: “This mural belongs elsewhere in the school, along with the flags of many other cultures,” and she pointed to the latest round of test scores for the school’s Latino students, citing large percentages of non-proficiency in English and math. “We are clearly failing them at the elementary level, and the CUSD is passing them through the ranks,” she said. Then she ended abruptly on a peaceful note: “Let our common goal be to bring the Hispanic population out of their cultural isolation within our schools and neighborhoods, uniting our families in friendship.”
Yohana Sandoval sat quietly at the same board meeting and listened to complaints about the way she and her classmates had positioned the American and Mexican flags (side by side) on their mural and to calls for its removal. Newly elected board member Ken Maddox defended the mural publicly and said he would be opposed to altering it in any way. Principal Carrie Bertini looked on as the crowd cheered.
“As an adult now, I have to put myself in other people’s shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from. And if someone is arguing that the American flag is smaller . . . Our intention was never to create any harm or disrespect. The artists are just as American as anyone else there,” Sandoval says. “I think we would be happy to come in and alter the mural. I can’t speak for all the artists, but what we care about is our mural, that it stays there, that it’s respected.
“Our intention was to unify the school. . . . I would be very upset if they covered the whole thing. It would just send the wrong message, not just to our generation, but to all kids.”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.