Students in front of a Mexican-only school in El Modena
Students in front of a Mexican-only school in El Modena
Courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Virginia Guzman, Last Surviving Matriarch of Mendez, et al v. Westminster Case, Passes Away

The last surviving matriarch of the historic Mendez, et al v. Westminster school desegregation case passed away last week. Virginia Guzman was 100 years old when God called la doña to assume her place in Heaven with the rest of the Latino fathers and mothers who made civil rights history in Orange County over 70 years ago.

Guzman was born in Santa Ana and attended a Mexican-only school, Fremont Elementary, in an era where school officials across Orange County subjected brown children to subpar learning conditions. As a kid, her principal would hit students with a rubber hose for speaking Spanish. Those memories were fresh in Virginia's mind when her son, Billy, was required to attend Fremont in the mid-1940s. She took it upon herself to ask school officials about moving her son to a white, better school. When they declined, she and her husband William organized parents to try and convince the Santa Ana School Board to end their Mexican-only schools. When that didn't work, the Guzmans unsuccessfully filed their own lawsuit to fight school segregation years before anyone else. And when that didn't work, Virginia pulled her son from public schools, instead enrolling him in a Catholic one.  "They didn't care porque somos Mexicanos," Virginia told a researcher decades later. "The Whites, they didn't care. They didn't care at all."

My parents also were involved with REACT this was a civil service club which used ham radios. My parents handle was Tortilla flats

Virginia and William connected with parents in Westminster, El Modena, and Garden Grove and filed Mendez et al v. Westminster School District, which helped to end school segregation in California. But scholars shamefully ignored the story of Virginia and her husband for decades, focusing instead—if they ever bothered to pay attention to the case—on only the Mendez family and relegating the contributions of the other familias to their last names. I wrote about this brown-washing of history back in 2009, and nearly a decade later, there's still no public monument at Fremont Elementary (which is now a different campus because the school Virginia and Billy attended was demolished during the 1970s) or anywhere in Santa Ana that marks the Guzman's contributions to history.

Few historians have given a damn. One was Luis F. Fernandez, Executive Director of the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum, and the scholar who rescued the Doss v. Bernal housing covenant case from obscurity; he interviewed Virginia on his own in 2011. Virginia also got interviewed for a documentary at Fullerton College, and President Barack Obama sent her a letter of recognition last year, writing "We stand on the shoulders of giants who helped move us to a more perfect union.."

But Virginia and the other mothers in the Mendez, et al case (save for Felicitas Mendez, wife of Gonzalo Mendez, and who has an intermediate and high school named for her and her husband in Santa Ana and East Los Angeles, respectively), finally got a proper telling thanks to East Los Angeles College professor Nadine Bermudez, who took on the herstory in her 2014 doctoral dissertation "Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al: Mexican American Female Activism in the Age of De Jure Segregation."

"As both a victim of and witness to institutionalized race discrimination," Bermudez wrote, "Mrs. Guzman's expertise contributed greatly to questions regarding the effects of segregated schooling and the motives and manner in which she and other women resisted." Bermudez went on to describe Guzman's actions as "one of the highest level of female involvement" in the case.

Guzman: Que descanse en pazEXPAND
Guzman: Que descanse en paz
Courtesy of Beverly Gallegos-Guzman

Virgina moved to Riverside in 1978 after the death of William, and lived there the rest of her life. But even in her golden years, she remained an activist. "Mom was a very independent woman, kind and very outgoing. Her desire was to always help people in need," her daughter, Beverly Gallegos-Guzman, told the Weekly. "When she moved to Riverside, she became involved with the [Riverside County] Office on Aging. She used her own gasoline money to take seniors in need to run errands and to their doctor appointments."

“I’m proud my husband had a part in changing history,” Guzman was quoted in the Orange County Register as saying in a 2007 presentation at Chapman University. But she did, too. And may her passing finally spark the rightful recognition she deserved that we didn't give Virginia Guzman in life.


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