Leo Carrillo, Gonzalo Mendez, Frank Palomino, Carey McWilliams, and Lame-O Westminster/Garden Grove Unified School Districts

The recent push by activists to have a school in the Orange Unified School District named after local civil rights pioneer Lorenzo Ramirez reminded me that the Westminster Unified School District still hasn't named a school after its famous civil rights pioneer: Gonzalo Mendez, who along with Ramirez and three other fathers sued to desegregate Orange County schools about 65 years ago. The city of Westminster does have a school named after a Latino (though, strangely, that school falls under the jurisdiction of the Garden Grove Unified School District): Leo Carrillo Elementary. And here is yet another story of how Orange County loves its Mexicans.


Most of you kids don't remember Carrillo, but he was a big deal in Southern California during the 1940s through the 1960s, playing the Cisco Kid and other Latino roles that portrayed us as dumb, gay caballeros. He was also a convenient Mexican.

Carrillo was of Californio ancestry, those much-romanticized residents of California when the state was actually a legal part of Mexico instead of being in its demographic sphere. The public treated Carrillo as some sort of demigod, a living emblem of the Old California so many romanticized while at the same time spitting on the actual Mexicans coming into the state.

The actor, for his part, made sure to play up those Mexican roots whenever necessary. In North from Mexico, the historian Carey McWilliams paints a withering portrait of Carrillo, though he never names him. In a chapter on California's fantasy Mexican heritage, McWilliams goes to work:

"Leading the [Cinco de Mayo] parade through the streets, riding majestically on a white horse, is a prominent 'Mexican' actor. Strangely enough, this actor, a Californio three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, becomes a 'Mexicano' on Cinco de Mayo. Elegantly attired in a ranchero costume, he sits proudly astride his silver-mounted saddle and jingles his silver spurs as he rides along. The moment he comes into sight, the crowds begin to applaud for he is well known to them through the unvarying stereotypic Mexican roles which he plays in the films. Moreover, they have seen him in exactly this same role, at the head of this or some similar parade, for fifteen years."

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The actual Mexicans in Los Angeles at the time, McWilliams wrote, despised Carrillo--"If I see that white horse once more, I'm going to spit in its eye," he quoted an activist as stating.

Carrillo also pushed for the internment of Japanese and was a strong supporter of HUAC--in other words, a perfect vendido for American society. Yet he is the only Latino in Garden Grove or Westminster for whom a school is named after (Garden Grove also had a plaintiff in the Mendez, et al v. Westminster, et al case: Frank Palomino), even though Carrillo has no notable ties to Garden Grove Unified or Westminster. Of course that's how we do it in the OC: better to have Mexi kids aspire to become milquetoast beaners than troublemaking local activists, ¿qué no?


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