OC's Famous Desegregation Case, Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster, et al., Celebrates 70 Years This Week

Students in front of Roosevelt School, El Modena (1922)
Students in front of Roosevelt School, El Modena (1922)
Courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

On Feb. 18, 1946, U.S. District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick found that the segregation of Mexican students to Mexican-only schools in the Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Westminster, and El Modeno school districts was unconstitutional, violating the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case, titled Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster, et al. made nationwide headlines at the time; the appeal, upheld a year later in the Ninth District Court of Appeals, drew the interest of the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall and then-California Governor Earl Warren. Those two, of course, went on to argue for and rule in favor of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended government-sanctioned school segregation once and for all.

And then the case was largely forgotten ever since, save for a couple of Chicano Studies folks who never bothered to learn the whole story.

I wish the truth about Mendez, et al. was fare less cavalier than how I just presented it—but it ain't. Fact is, the case remains virtually unknown and misunderstood despite its titanic implications for civil rights in the United States. How little known? Even those who know about it almost universally call it by the wrong name: Mendez, vs. Westminster. How misunderstood? The few historians and civil rights activists who have ever bothered with the case have always elevated one plaintiff family—the one headed by Gonzalez Mendez of Westminster—above the other four headed by Lorenzo Ramirez of Orange, Thomas Estrada of Westminster, William Guzman of Santa Ana, and Frank Palomino of Garden Grove.  And if you think I'm exaggerating, try this experiment: try to find four separate pages online about the detailed involvement of Ortega, Guzman and Palomino—go on, I'll wait. Hell, there's been more ink spilled on a Japanese-American family that were friends of Gonzalo Mendez than on the other three families.

The only exception to this is Lorenzo Ramirez, who sued the El Modeno School District (now part of Orange Unified School District) because the district wouldn't allow his children to attend the same school he did in the 1920s. He at least has a statue of himself in a library named after him at Santiago Canyon College. But, as I wrote six years ago, Lorenzo's story had to be dragged out kicking and screaming from the proverbial dustbin after the adult children of Ramirez had a public falling-out with Sandra Robbie, a Chapman University student affairs coordinator who directed an Emmy-winning documentary on Mendez, et al that focused almost exclusively on the Mendez family and reduced the other families to—I kid you not—a seconds-long shot of their names on the original lawsuit.

Statue of Ramirez at Santiago Canyon College
Statue of Ramirez at Santiago Canyon College
Rancho Santiago Community College District

Sorry not sorry if I'm coming off as bitter instead of celebratory. But as someone who has covered the evolution of the case for nearly 15 years, Mendez et al vs. Westminster, et al. remains my ultimate example of why people should tell full stories instead of reducing them to soundbites. The very fact that Gonzalo Mendez and his wife, Felicitas, have two schools named after them, in school districts (LA Unified and Santa Ana) that didn't even pertain to their part of Mendez, et al. shows how people will run with certain parts of the story while leaving the best, most pertinent parts behind. And don't think I'm somehow picking on the Mendez family, either: their home district of Westminster has never bothered to acknowledge them, preferring instead to name schools after Hollywood mega-director Cecil B. DeMille and Californio asshole Leo Carrillo.

But historians focusing so hard on one family missed the rest of the story for decades. For instance, it was wondered out loud for years how the plaintiffs in Mendez, et al, found an LA-based attorney, David C. Marcus, to take on the case, with everyone accepting the conventional wisdom that Gonzalo Mendez magically plucked him out from of nowhere. It wasn't until 2010, when Cal State Fullerton graduate student  Luis F. Fernandez discovered that Marcus had successfully tried the case of Fullerton resident Alex Bernal—sued by his neighbors in 1943 for daring to be a Mexican in a whites-only neighborhood—in 1943, and was already known by Lorenzo Ramirez. Reporters repeated without challenge the claim that Gonzalo Mendez valiantly fought against desegregation by himself, trying desperately to involve other families in his struggle to the point of crying at home, despite records showing families in Santa Ana organizing against Mexican-only schools as far back as the 1920s.

Los Angeles Timesclipping on the case
Los Angeles Timesclipping on the case
Los Angeles Times archives

Anyhoo, anyone interested in learning more should consult the official Mendez, et al vs. Westminster, et al website run by the Ramirez family, where you can read trial transcripts and bunch of other fascinating, primary-source material. And the final takeway from all this? Know your Mexican-American history—but know it completely.

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