Whether walking in the Lunar New Year parade, speaking at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Santiago High School’s new gymnasium or wearing a red scarf in support of public education, Walter Muñeton is passionate about his community. The Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD) trustee is a product of its schools, having grown up in the city’s Buena Clinton neighborhood. In the 1980’s, county health officials called the quarter square mile of overcrowded apartments the worst slum in OC. Along with his Mexican immigrant parents from Jerez, Zacatecas, Muñeton called it home.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that Muñeton took an interest in Garden Grove’s local politics. On a whim, he attended a mayoral debate between eternal incumbent Bruce Broadwater and newcomer Bao Nguyen. Muñeton liked what the GGUSD trustee had to say about the city’s future and the two struck up a friendship. After the debate, Nguyen edged Broadwater by a thin margin of votes. It wouldn’t be long before Muñeton set his own sights on elected office.
The 2016 Garden Grove school board elections were set to be the first determined by newly formed districts. Nobody declared their candidacy in District Three which encompassed Muñeton’s hometown in east Garden Grove. He ran unopposed but still articulated a vision for technical education career paths and onsite social workers for the well-being of students in winning the seat. Since then, he’s a ubiquitous presence in progressive OC circles, often sporting his trademark bow ties. More recently, Muñeton became the whiskery inverse of SanTana councilman Jose Solorio in ditching his clean-shaven appearance as a candidate to don the most daring mustache in local politics!
So what’s been going on at GGUSD since then from dual immersion programs to anti-charter school politics? For that, we asked the 26-year-old trustee a few questions before he turn on the burners of his 202o reelection campaign:
OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): Can you describe how Bao Nguyen served as a political mentor of sorts for you while on the school board?
Muñeton: Although we may have different stories, having that familiarity with speaking a different language, having parents that came from different countries, and knowing what it’s like to grow up in poverty has been really key. I want to be able to pick apart what other people have gone through and look at best practices. What does evidence show, what has been done and what can we do to really make a change? We keep in contact and he’s always available to me. He’s still doing his thing. I really support him for that.
Are the bow ties you’re both known for a coincidence?
Oh, no! The bow ties are cool, man! [Laughs] When I saw Bao rock the bow tie I thought, “That’s sick! Nobody’s doing it.” I still rock the bow tie when I can. I just try to change it up every now and then. I like to stand apart.
We hear a lot about Dual Immersion for Spanish, but GGUSD recently started a program for Vietnamese, the second in the county and fourth in the nation. How’s that been working out so far?
In the previous board before me, Bao was really pushing for such programs. They went ahead and started the Spanish dual immersion program at Monroe Elementary in Fountain Valley. So far, it’s been very successful. For some reason or another, there wasn’t any real efforts to go ahead and move forward with Vietnamese dual immersion. We have a large Vietnamese community and I think it would be beneficial for those students to appreciate the heritage, culture and also be able to speak the language starting at a really young age. I was lucky to have a colleague on the board, Lan Nguyen, who was also pushing to have the Vietnamese program implemented. As of almost a year ago, we were able to start that at Murdy Elementary School. This is the first year so now it’s going to start at one grade and move forward. So far, the responses from both communities have been positive.
There’s been a battle of the scarves in OC between charter school supporters who wear yellow scarves and public school supporters who sport red ones. What’s that about?
I attended public schools from kindergarten until now. Of course, there’s been things I’ve wanted to change so that’s why I ran for office. I was looking at what charters school are trying to do, things going on in Anaheim at Palm Lane Elementary which got converted into a charter school, and there’s some really shady things being done with charter schools to try to entice parents. I feel it’s unethical. We are doing well financially and we also have a pretty top notch educational school district. We just recently got named an Exemplary School District and we have about 11 schools this year that were named distinguished schools, which were the most out of any school districts in the county.
A couple of months ago, some parents from the Santa Ana Unified School District were going to go to a charter school fair at the MainPlace Mall. They invited me and other public education supporters. One of the parents said it’s all about red for public ed. Charter schools have their yellow scarves. We have our red ones. It’s making a statement that we’re here to fight for our schools. There’s a charter school movement happening in Garden Grove called the Garden Grove Parent Union. Statements are made intending to make our schools look bad and promote an alternative, which is charter schools. They’re looking at Garden Grove. I think they want to expand, make money and move in.
Last year, GGUSD became a “welcoming” district after Trump got elected. Have you seen a palpable anxiety in the student body? Also, a DACA clinic at a school site was disrupted by outsider Trump supporters a few months back in October.
I proposed the resolution to my colleagues. We needed to make sure that our students are being supported. I was really fortunate that our board passed it unanimously. Community members came and spoke. There was a lot of fear and there still is. It’s more than just a statement. Beyond this, we opened a family resource center next to Clinton Elementary School where we have immigration lawyers, nonprofit organizations and different groups that help families. We are partnering with Resilience OC and Orange County Immigrant Youth United. That’s been great. We’re trying to improve the social and emotional well-being. Going back to the clinic incident, we had different clinics. The MAGA folks found out about it and were there to basically disrupt it. Instead of saying we’re going to stop, we’re not going to let fear win. We’re still offering services for families.
Lastly, you ran as a clean-shaven candidate, but now sport the most notable mustache in local politics. What’s the inspiration?
I did a “No Shave November” challenge. Santiago High School does the competition and raises funds for different cancer organizations. They judge who has the coolest mustache. I decided to do it. I didn’t win. I lost! [Laughs] I was going to keep it until New Year’s, but I just kept it after that. Another thing is, I look at different revolutionaries in the past, Zapata definitely, and I always joke around that they all had some type of crazy facial hair. I try to be relatable. I’m not always in a suit and tie. I like to be with the people.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.