OC's Famous Desegregation Case Finally Gets Its Historical Due, But One Family Feels Left Out
Separate But Unequal
Orange County’s most famous desegregation case is finally getting its historical due. So why is one of the plaintiff families upset?
When Lorenzo Ramirez returned to Roosevelt Elementary School in Orange’s El Modena barrio the fall of 1944, he didn’t imagine the visit would help desegregate California’s public schools. As a 13-year-old immigrant from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Ramirez attended Roosevelt in the 1920s as one of its few Mexican students, earning commendations from teachers for high grades. After finding a bride, Ramirez moved with his wife to Whittier to work as a foreman at the massive Murphy Ranch. He enrolled three sons in the mostly white neighborhood school, where they met no resistance from teachers or fellow students on account of their ethnicity.
“You never thought about being Mexican,” says Lorenzo’s son, Silvino Ramirez, now 74. “The white children would ask us for tacos, but that was about it.”
Lorenzo moved his family back to El Modena in 1944. When he tried to enroll Silvino and his brothers at Roosevelt, school administrators told him they now had to go to the all-Mexican, run-down Lincoln School next door–the same campus Lorenzo once attended alongside white children. None of the Ramirez children spoke Spanish, but it didn’t matter; this new Roosevelt school was whites-only.
“He had gone to school with all of [those school administrators], and that’s where the anger came,” says Lorenzo’s widow, Josefina, now 96 but still sharp of mind, in Spanish. “At first, he just walked around and said nothing. When he was mad, he didn’t say anything. Then he told me, ‘I’m not going to live on my knees in front of the Americans.’”
Lorenzo Ramirez joined other Orange County Latino families in filing a class-action lawsuit. In the 1946 case, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Gonzalo Mendez and Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomillo, and Ramirez respectively sued the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts for discriminating against Mexican elementary-school students. Ramirez testified in the case that became known as Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. But Lorenzo never talked about the trial with his family.
“Everything he suffered, he didn’t share it with us,” Josefina says. “He didn’t want us to feel bad about anything that was going on. All he would tell me is, ‘You take care of our little chicks; I’ll take care of everything else.’”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul McCormick ruled in favor of the families, and the four Orange County school districts had to integrate their schools. But the Ramirez children remained in the dark about their dad’s participation in this landmark desegregation case for decades—along with most of the state and the country.
Mendez v. Westminster is the most-publicized civil-rights case no one has ever heard of. It was heavily covered in its day, attracting coverage in The Nation, The New York Times, La Opinión and the Santa Ana Register. The Yale Law Review wrote in 1947 that because of its success, “There is little doubt that the Supreme Court will be presented with a case involving segregation in schools within the next year or two.” Thurgood Marshall—who argued Brown v. Board of Education and became the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court—filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the families when the school districts unsuccessfully appealed the case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947. That year, California Governor Earl Warren—the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who presided over Brown—cited Mendez v. Westminster when he signed a law outlawing segregation at all California schools.
The case never made it into the official Orange County story, though, existing only in the historical margins of ethnic studies. But this wrong is finally being righted. Mendez v. Westminster is included in California public-school teaching guidelines to help teachers prepare their courses on American history. There’s a Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana, as well as a Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center high school in Boyle Heights (Felicitas was Gonzalo’s Puerto Rican wife). In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the case.
Much of the credit for restoring the case to its rightful perch in the country’s civil-rights struggles goes to Sandra Robbie, a Chapman University administrative assistant at the College of Educational Studies whose enthusiasm in retelling its story is matched only by her ambition to ensure the nation never forgets. Robbie and Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo who took the witness stand as a 9-year-old girl to argue for school desegregation, travel across the country to tell the Mendez family’s story to crowds ranging from elementary-school kids to graduate-school programs. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is interested in exhibiting a display on the case. And a 30-minute documentary Robbie produced about the lawsuit, Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children (Para Todos los Niños), won a local Emmy award in 2003.
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.”
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.
“Since they started, it was just with them [the Mendezes],” says Josefina. “I don’t want my husband to be in the front, but I don’t want him forgotten, either.”
“We’re not trying to be confrontational, but the truth is the truth,” adds Phyllis. “I will always stick to the ‘et al.’ We’re upset because the other families did just as much as the Mendezes. They were all united—that was the beautiful thing. Sandra wants all the glory. What she’s done should be presented as an oral history of one family—Sandra should specify that. But she can’t really absorb it. She can say she really feels it in her heart that the Mendez family really did everything, but that’s not the truth.
“I have nothing against her personally—she’s nice,” concludes Phyllis. “Professionally, it’s another thing.”
* * *
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.
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).
“Munemitsus! Palomillos! Scooch together!” yells Robbie. Tonight, the school will dedicate the Mendez v. Westminster Group Study Room and Archive.
The student ambassadors join the group. Faux gaslamps turn on in the early dusk. Robbie “is a force of nature,” remarks Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt. Petite, wearing brown slacks, an off-white turtleneck sweater, a chunky bead necklace and a smile that stays on all night, Robbie marshals the last stragglers in for the shot. A five-member mariachi band waits, ready to belt corridos.
Picture time. “Okay, guys!” yells Robbie. “Everybody say, ‘Mendez!’ Go, Mendez!” The families respond in unison.
“Woooo! Go, Chapman!” Robbie now shouts, like the cheerleader she once was. She tells the photographed to throw up peace signs. They do. Then, “Go CRAZY!” The families throw up their hands.
Parade time. Robbie threads through the crowd of about 30 onlookers, carrying a basket of glow sticks. She tells onlookers they can either follow the guests of honor in the coming march or stand along the short route to watch. The mariachis, now playing, go in front, followed by families and dignitaries, then students. A golf cart with flowers is at the rear.
A man wearing a Chapman sweat shirt throws fake snow on the parade as it winds through the campus: from Memorial Hall past Roosevelt Hall, past a fountain reflecting a slab of the Berlin Wall, past Wilkinson and DeMille halls, and eventually to the steps of Attallah Plaza in front of the library. Robbie passes out candies to confused students strolling by, some of whom high-five paraders. The mariachis continue to play; people start dancing. Robbie, who now has snow in her hair, links arms with a woman and spins.
“This is an amazing commitment to diversity,” says Charlene Baldwin, dean of the libraries. “It’s Sandra Robbie’s vision. . . . She has unbelievable passion and commitment.” Chapman initially was lukewarm to the idea of the parade, she remembers, but Robbie insisted on it. “Amazing.”
Eventually, the crowd enters the library and takes the elevator to the third floor, to the already-packed Malloy Performance Portico. Robbie emerges from the elevator. “Woo!” she yells, before beginning to kiss people’s cheeks.
Speech time. Diocese of Orange Bishop Cirilo Flores gives the invocation.
Baldwin offers remarks. “This room is more than a room,” she says. “It’s part of a larger commitment at Chapman to teach about this case.”
Professors and deans speak. Rueben Martinez, legendary bookstore owner, MacArthur genius grant recipient and now a presidential fellow at the school, shares his remarks, followed by representatives for congresspeople Ed Royce and Loretta Sanchez, then Judge Frederick Aguirre. “Sandra Robbie does the most to publicize this case—if you haven’t seen her video on this, you must see it,” says Federico Sayre, the main donor who made the room a reality.
Robbie takes the stage to thunderous applause. “I’m so honored to see so many faces and friends I’ve met through Mendez v. Westminster,” she says, then retells anecdotes of people talking about the case when Robbie travels around the country to lecture on its importance. “This is a dream come true.”
The ceremony ends. Robbie tells the plaintiff families to gather at the rotunda for more pictures. They smile, but they never say a word before the crowd.
The Ramirez family didn’t attend this event. They weren’t invited.
Staff writer Spencer Kornhaber contributed to the reporting of this story.
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