Elias Espinoza and Justo Cruz.
Elias Espinoza and Justo Cruz.

Whatever Happened to the Santa Ana Four?

Change the cars, replace the auto-body-repair shops with factories, and the Cypress Street Barrio in Orange would look almost exactly as it did in the 1950s. Most of the buildings in this neighborhood attest to the era when citrus was king in Southern California—quaint wooden houses, grocery stores painted with Chicano murals, and Orange County's last operating citrus-packing house, the Villa Park Orchards Association—and the county welcomed cheap Mexican labor as long as it didn't complain. Pioneer families (some dating back to the turn of the 20th Century) still live on Cypress Street; many current and former residents held a reunion picnic in June at Orange's Hart Park to swap stories and pictures.

Only one building looks out of place in this picturesque barrio: a two-story apartment complex at 495 N. Cypress St. It's a tan, stuccoed eyesore, with a spartan, Brutalist aesthetic that dates it to the 1970s. The building is an ugly anomaly, but an apt one. This lot is where one of the Santa Ana Four met his fate.

By the summer of 1951, Justo Cruz, Augustin Esparza, Elias Espinoza and Andres Gonzales, all born in Mexico, had lived in Orange County for decades. All were in their late 50s and had American-born children. Cruz and Espinoza were respected activists in Orange County's Latino community, and Espinoza was an Army veteran who tended to a family of eight in a large house at 495 N. Cypress St.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 1951, officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) swept across Orange County's barrios. They detained Cruz, Esparza and Espinoza, bringing them to the INS offices in Los Angeles to ask them answer the most devastating question of the day: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

And yes, in one way or another, all participated in Communist Party activities during the 1930s. But that was the past; now, in their late 50s, the men just wanted to age in peace.

That didn't matter to the feds, who shipped them—along with Gonzales, who had been caught a week earlier—to San Pedro's notorious Terminal Island, where other immigrants suspected of subversive activities awaited deportation.

In the next couple of years, the men who became known as the Santa Ana Four were symbols of the crackdown on civil liberties that characterized the home front of the Cold War. Thousands of people across the country donated money and signed petitions trying to secure their release. But the government wouldn't hear it—within a year of arresting the Santa Ana Four, they ordered the men deported to Mexico with no chance of returning.

And just like that, the Santa Ana Four disappeared. Their struggle faded from the public memory and never quite notched a place in the Orange County history books. The government moved on to nab thousands more Mexicans with their Operation Wetback, and individual stories were now too numerous to publicize.

Now, the country is in a new era of anti-immigrant sentiment, this one cloaked in fear of terrorism and reconquista, rather than communism. Immigration raids, unseen for a generation, are now commonplace. Last month, immigration officersarrested 175 illegal immigrants—some with criminal records, many without—across Orange County in just one day and promised more. The week after the migramission, the Senate allowed a proposed amnesty bill to die.

The story of the Santa Ana Four is proof that an immigrant can do everything right in this county—migrate legally, work hard and raise a family—and still get deported.

*   *   *

Local and national historians celebrate the 1950s as a time of progress for Orange County. The county's mighty citrus industry was enjoying its last hurrah, as new developments sprouted on former orange groves and strawberry fields (eight cities incorporated during the 1950s alone) and ranchers planned the transformation of South County into hilly suburbs. The county was also consolidating its reputation as a hotbed of strident conservatism. County voters helped elect local boy Richard Nixon as a California senator in 1950, a campaign notorious for his smearing of opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas as a communist sympathizer "right down to her [pink] underwear."

But not everything was well in paradise. The Korean War had just started, and Mexicans were entering the country in numbers unseen since the Mexican Revolution. Many were lured by the tales of countrymen who worked on American farms as part of the wartime braceroprogram.

And so, the country had a new mass of immigrants to fear and demonize. In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which ostensibly sought to change the racist immigration quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1924. But its most important clauses allowed the government to deport any immigrant suspected of participating in movements or organizations deemed dangerous to America.

The bill was so pernicious that President Harry S. Truman vetoed it. "In no other realm of our national life," he wrote, "are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration." Congress nevertheless overrode Truman's veto, with Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, one of the bill's authors, remarking, "We have in the United States today hardcore, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary, are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission, and those gates are cracking under the strain."

But the government didn't even wait for the installation of the McCarran-Walter Act before targeting immigrants who had participated in the various social struggles of the turbulent 1930s. In 1948, Nixon—then a congressman—had proposed a bill that would require all Communist Party members and "sympathizers" to register with the Attorney General and submit fingerprints. The bill died in the Senate, but McCarran revived it two years later as the Internal Security Act, and Congress overwhelmingly passed it; many similar provisions exist today in the PATRIOT Act. When the feds first approached the Santa Ana Four in the summer of 1951, it was under the provisions of the Internal Security Act.

Justo Cruz had the most tenuous ties to the Communist Party. During the 1930s, he joined the Worker's Alliance (WA), an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration that served as a bargaining agency for the organization. Allegations of Communist infiltration dogged the WA, mainly because Communists and socialists were in leadership positions.

But while Cruz was merely a fellow traveler, Elias Espinoza, Augustin Esparza and Andres Gonzales were all committed Commies. Gonzales—who illegally entered the country in 1915 as a 19-year-old—joined under the false name Lagardiere Pistola, along with Esparza. Espinoza, meanwhile, was a Communist Party organizer in Orange County who named two of his sons Carlos Marx and Lenin. He was so radical that organizers of the 1936 Orange County citrus strike barred Espinoza from joining their incipient union, allowing him only to address citrus workers with speeches.

After the 1930s, however, the men moved on with their lives. Only Espinoza seems to have maintained ties with the Communist Party; former neighbors interviewed by the Weekly claim Espinoza held Communist Party meetings in Orange's Cypress Street barrio during the 1940s. Cruz, meanwhile, joined the Orange County Community Chest, a loose collective of civic groups that played a crucial role in Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark case that desegregated schools in Orange County and served as direct inspiration for Brown v. Board of Education.

Cruz, Esparza, Espinoza and Gonzales settled into their jobs—Cruz as a machine operator at a textile mill in Santa Ana, Esparza and Gonzales as orange pickers, Espinoza as a janitor at a packing house. They married, raised large families and participated in Orange County's burgeoning Latino community.

Until the raids.

*   *   *

Philip Colin was helping his father make tortillas before dawn on Oct. 17, 1951, when immigration officials came for Espinoza at his home at 495 N. Cypress St. The Colin family store was just down the street from Espinoza's house. Philip was a senior at Orange High School and a classmate of Espinoza's oldest daughter, Henna. The arrest came "as an absolute shock," he now says. "Nobody suspected anything."

Esparza was also caught at home that morning; Gonzales had been put into custody the week before. La migra caught Cruz at his job. Just weeks before, FBI agents asked Cruz's boss to fire him because of his activism. According to a flier circulated after Cruz's arrest, the boss replied, "If business gets so bad that I have only two men working in the mill, one of them will be me. The other will be Justo Cruz."

Immigration officials set bail for Esparza, Espinoza and Gonzales at $1,000, but saddled Cruz with a figure of $5,000. Deportation proceedings were started shortly after. All were charged with belonging to the Communist Party under the 1950 Internal Security Act.

The evidence against the Santa Ana Four was damning. All had confessed to their affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1930s during their summer meetings with government officials; in fact, everyone except Esparza signed sworn declarations attesting to that fact. FBI officials asked Cruz to identify other Mexicans who had been involved in activism in the past in exchange for leniency, but Cruz refused.

The arrest of the Santa Ana Four drew the attention of the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign-Born (LACPFB), an organization that provided pro bono services to immigrants imprisoned for political reasons. The group, as the late UC Irvine professor Jeffrey M. Garcilazo noted in his own study of the Santa Ana Four, "proudly opposed anticommunism when it was unpopular to do so" and espoused radical views that "alienated many in the communities from which it sought support."

The LACPFB's records on the Santa Ana Four are kept at the Southern California Public Library in Los Angeles but remain incomplete—members threw away many of its internal documents for fear that the government would seize their records and prosecute members.

The LACPFB immediately began an education campaign across Southern California to set the Santa Ana Four free. Fliers in English and Spanish described their ordeal, claiming that the middle-aged men were arrested "because of some ideas they supposedly held some 10 or 20 years ago." Noting their previous activism, the LACPFB asked readers in caps:


The flier's author was Ladislao Cruz, a Santa Ana grocery-store owner and Justo's only son. Ladislao, who appears to have coined the term "Santa Ana Four," would pen another letter on his father's behalf. In "The Story of Justo Cruz," Ladislao went into further detail about his father's activist past. "Everywhere that my father has worked," Ladislao wrote, "he has joined with others to get decent wages, to get decent conditions on the job, and to get rid of the discrimination and second-class treatment of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Negroes and all minority groups.

"But you say, what did he do to be arrested and jailed?" Ladislao asked rhetorically in his letter. "That's it. I've just finished telling you.

"If a man is 'dangerous' because he thinks that wages should allow the worker and his family to have enough to eat and live in a decent home," Ladislao continued, "then I'll agree—Justo Cruz is a very 'dangerous' man.

"Many who have fought against oppression and are being persecuted by the Immigration Service, have lived here for 30 or more years, and have American-born children and sometimes grandchildren," Ladislao concluded. "Some people didn't know these facts until someone close to them was arrested and persecuted under the McCarran Act. I was one of these. But now, with all of my heart, I urge every person to come to the defense of not only my father, but [also] every foreign born person trying to live a peaceful, useful life in this country."

The LACPFB also produced a pamphlet on behalf of Espinoza. Titled "Why Joel Benjamin Espinoza, Aged 9, American, Wrote a Letter to Mr. Landon," the front page of the foldout featured a picture of the cherubic Joel, wearing a Cub Scout uniform replete with kerchief, jeans, medals and a short haircut. It also excerpted his letter, part of which read, "I a nine years old and I was in your office last Wednesday because I don't want you to deport my father. . . . My brother Danny and I ware Cub Scouts and we need our father to take us on hikes and to Pack meetings."

Inside the pamphlet was a picture of the Espinoza family: five sons; three daughters; Elias' wife, Consuelo; and his mother-in-law. You couldn't find a better portrait of an all-American family. One son sports a letterman's jacket, another a Hawaiian shirt, another a baseball cap. The girls look like bobby-soxers; Consuelo and her mother smile broadly. The bespectacled Elias commands the center of the photo and wears a tie. Underneath, a paragraph read, "The Espinoza Family will be left fatherless and almost penniless if other Americans permit Elias Espinoza Sr. . . . to be deported to Mexico."

While the LACPFB fought the deportations of the Santa Ana Four, Consuelo barnstormed across the country to publicize her husband's case. She even testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington, D.C., where she presented committee members with more than 5,000 signatures asking that Elias be released.

But powerful forces worked behind-the-scenes to boot the Santa Ana Four from the United States, namely the Associated Farmers of Orange County. The organization had formed in response to the Citrus War of 1936, when more than 3,000 Latino orange pickers went on strike for the right to create a union and higher wages. The Associated Farmers—composed of the county's citrus growers and packing houses—colluded with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's office and local police units to brutally suppress the strike and sought the deportation of strike leaders and even the Mexican consul (see "Gunkist Oranges," June 9, 2006). After the strike, the Associated Farmers placed many Latinos on a blacklist, a move that a 1939 congressional committee deemed illegal.

Shortly after the arrest of the Santa Ana Four, the Associated Farmers put out a bulletin warning growers of "subversive activities" in the county. "Following the arrest of the four Mexican aliens, Justo Cruz, Augustine [sic] Esparza, Andres Gonzales and Elias Espinoza," the bulletin read, the LACPFB was trying to "organize the Mexican community into a left-wing pressure group" and convince them they were the "only organization striving to protect the rights of and looking for the interest of 'oppressed' minority groups."

Ladislao Cruz's letter claimed that the Associated Farmers fingered his father to the authorities. "The Associated Farmers want their oranges picked and packed cheaply—they want to pay starvation wages to their workers," Ladislao wrote. "And anyone who tries to get a decent wage is 'dangerous.'"

Meanwhile, Consuelo Espinoza's campaign led her to the offices of James B. Utt, the Tustin-area congressman better remembered for his 1963 claim that the United Nations was training "a large contingent of barefooted Africans" in Georgia to "take over the United States." According to an LACPFB document, "Mrs. Espinoza quoted Congressman Utt as saying that he would like to do something about the McCarran-Walter Act but that the Associated Farmers wouldn't let him." Another private letter in Elias Espinoza's LACPFB file stated that Utt "intimated that he had received many requests from his constituency asking him to do something for Mr. Espinoza, but he regretted that at this moment he could do very little because the Associated Farmers of Orange County did not approve of Mr. Espinoza. He advised Mrs. Espinoza to see if she couldn't convince the Associated Farmers to change their minds about Mr. Espinoza."

*   *   *

Eventually, the Santa Ana Four got out on bail as the government pursued their cases. The INS moved quickly to try the men. Gonzales and Esparza—whose cases never received the same notoriety as those of Cruz and Espinoza—turned themselves in for deportation in the summer of 1953; after Esparza's case failed, LACPFB lawyer Richard W. Petherbridge told a fellow attorney, "I somehow doubt that this will terminate my contacts with the Bureau of Immigration. That this is the case is brought freshly to mind every morning on the way to work, when I drive by a concentration camp on the edge of town, into which busloads of 'wetbacks' are brought every day."

LACPFB lawyers won an extension for Espinoza, but the government clearly wanted him gone. A director for the Los Angeles office of the INS told reporters he didn't like the LACPFB because "they work from directives and not for the good of the individuals who are involved in deportation proceedings." He singled out Espinoza for criticism because he wouldn't disassociate with the LACPFB.

In Espinoza's appeal hearing, Herman R. Landon—head of the Los Angeles bureau of the INS—argued that Espinoza should be deported because he "failed to make a showing" that he was of "good moral character." Espinoza lost his appeal and was ordered deported on Sept. 16, 1954—Mexican Independence Day.

Justo Cruz fared better than the rest of the Santa Ana Four. The government ordered him to report for deportation on Dec. 18, 1952, much earlier than anyone else. But LACPFB lawyers won a stay by arguing Cruz was eligible to apply for discretionary relief since both of his children were severely ill and had no mother.

The strategy bought him a couple of months before the government tried to deport him again in February 1953. This time, Los Angeles Councilman Ed Roybal intervened on his behalf and won Cruz a yearlong stay. Once that year finished, INS officials ordered Cruz to turn himself in on Sept. 29, 1954. During this time, FBI officials tried twice to dupe Cruz into signing his own deportation papers, according to an angry letter LACPFB lawyer William M. Samuels penned to Landon.

By this time, Cruz was becoming a poster child of sorts for the way the United States treated its Mexicans. Operation Wetback was launched in 1954, and the government rounded up Mexicans—both legal and illegal—by the thousands, housing them in virtual concentration camps before shipping them back to Mexico. Cruz's story would become one of the centerpieces in Shame of a Nation, a booklet put out by the LACPFB to illustrate the effects the government's campaign against immigrants had on working-class people.

The LACPFB persisted in trying to set Cruz free, finally winning a hearing with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C. The board agreed that deporting Cruz would put undue burden on his American-born children, and Cruz's case was finally dismissed in 1959. There was one catch: A letter dated Aug. 13, 1959, written by Samuels to the INS revealed that immigration authorities put Cruz under permanent parole, requiring him to meet with the INS monthly for the rest of his life. Samuels asked that a yearly written report instead be filed, as there was "no reasonable basis for the requirement." It's not known whether the INS complied with Samuels' request.

Nevertheless, Cruz was free, and he retired to his Santa Ana home. He died on Dec. 2, 1971, at age 83.

*   *   *

Last week, Sylvia Mendez and Sandra Robbie rode their orange Volkswagen bus in Huntington Beach's Fourth of July parade. The two ladies have spent the past couple of months crisscrossing the United States in the van, spreading the gospel of Mendez v. Westminster, of which Sylvia was a plaintiff.

But parade organizers rejected their application. They initially told Mendez and Robbie they "didn't have enough entertainment value." After the two raised a well-deserved stink in the local media, an organizer confessed to Orange County Registercolumnist Yvette Cabrera "nobody had heard of this issue. . . . The history of this was totally unknown to the committee."

Thus goes Orange County's Latino history. Latinos have always played a major role in the Orange County story, but many of their contributions get ignored. The Great Flood of 1938, the aforementioned 1936 Citrus War, Mendez v. Westminster,and the Santa Ana Four. There are only parenthetical mentions of the Santa Ana Four in history books, daily newspaper clippings of the time and oral histories. Do a Google search on the Four, and you'll find "McCarthyism, Mexican Americans, and the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, 1950-1954," an article by Garcilazo in the 2001 issue of the academic journal Western Historical Quarterly—but little else. Not even the Orange County Mexican American Historical Society, the county's preeminent archives on local Latino history, had heard of the case when contacted for this story.

What's even more telling about the mysteries of OC's Latino past is that many of the people with firsthand knowledge of the Santa Ana Four either wouldn't speak to the Weekly or had conflicting memories of the events.

Augie Morales remembers the Espinozas well. Now 71 years old and living in San Diego County, Morales graduated from Orange High School in 1954 and was good friends with Elias Espinoza's son Carlos Marx. "When they deported [Elias], the family was flabbergasted," he says. "They didn't know which way to go. It came as a shock to all of us."

Morales says the Espinozas quickly became the subject of ridicule in the tight-knit Cypress Street barrio because of Elias' Communist affiliation. "They disappeared for a long time," he says. "I'll tell you the truth: I don't think anyone knew where they went. I don't know whether they went to Mexico, or they were here in Southern California. I don't think anyone does."

A couple of years ago, Morales attended a high school reunion for his graduating class. "They called out all of us, and we stood up to be recognized. Then they mentioned Carlos Espinoza. I didn't recognize him, but I remembered the name. We hadn't spoken since the 1950s. I asked him, 'You know who I am?' 'No, I don't know who you are,' he said. I told him who I was. He started laughing. We sat down to talk." Morales says Espinoza claimed he was a professor at Cal State Fullerton, but university archives don't show him as having taught there.

"He and I were pretty good buddies," Morales says. "But he never came back to the reunions, and I never spoke to him again."

Philip Colin also attended school with some of the Espinozas. After Elias' deportation, Colin says, Consuelo moved her children to another house in Orange and worked to support them. "She was a friendly woman, but she always seemed tired," Colin says. "The children graduated from college and just spread out. You heard about them from time to time, but not that much."

Philip's brother Bob has stronger memories of the Espinozas; his brother-in-law married Henna, Elias' oldest daughter. Bob, who still lives in Orange County, doesn't recall Henna or any of her brothers ever discussing their father's deportation. "He ended up moving to Tijuana and died just a couple of years ago," he says. "I never heard the kids really talk about him. They were all pretty smart. One became a minister, a couple of others became correctional officers; I think [Carlos] is a musician in Corona."

Henna Espinoza now lives in Connecticut; she refused to comment for this story.

Ladislao Cruz, Justo's son, died in 2000 and left two sons, Randolph and Justus. Justus now lives in Pflugersville, Texas, and did not return repeated calls from the Weekly; Randolph's whereabouts are unknown.

As for Esparza and Gonzales, no one interviewed for this story had heard of the two, nor are there any death certificates on file in the Orange County Record/Clerk's office.



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