White parents vastly outnumbered the handful of Mexican women who came from La Colonia Independencia to attend a Magnolia School District board meeting on Feb. 21, 1955. The show of force was there in hopes the district would reverse its plan to transfer more than 100 students from Magnolia No. 1, where white children attended classes, to Magnolia No. 2, known popularly as the Mexican school, in La Colonia, an unincorporated barrio in West Anaheim.
“The school board sure handed us a ‘Mickey,’” Carole Ralston, a PTA president who led a petition against the transfer, told the Los Angeles Times. “At a PTA meeting just prior to their announcement, we were told about plans for double sessions at Magnolia No. 1. Why the sudden switch?”
The answer to Ralston’s question? Gloria Lopez. A mother whose sons were attending Magnolia No. 2, Lopez made a suggestion to the board at a previous meeting out of the kindness of her heart. The school across the street from her home in La Colonia had three vacant classrooms, which could alleviate overcrowding and avoid double sessions. It seemed like common sense, especially for a district on the verge of a 300 percent enrollment explosion just months before the opening of Disneyland; the problem underscored the post-World War II housing boom in Anaheim.
For almost a decade, Magnolia No. 2 evaded the blow that Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. dealt California’s de jure segregated schools from the heart of Orange County. But with the county’s orange groves giving way to new urban sprawl, the Mexican school stood on shaky foundation.
On Feb. 8, the board had unanimously agreed to distribute (and integrate) students more equally at the two schools. “My mother’s idea was received with a lot of disdain from the board president,” says Alice Lopez-Perez, Gloria’s youngest daughter, “but much to her surprise, there came the children.”
Well, the children didn’t come right away. Tempers flared at the Feb. 21 board meeting, which attracted reporters and Latino civil-rights activists. One man scolded trustees, rolling out a number of objections, including supposed rodent infestations at Magnolia No. 2. He called the school site a fire hazard and cited outhouses used by residents who lived in “so-called homes” nearby. Another speaker emphatically denied racism-fueled objections to the district’s plan, echoing instead the “fire trap” talking point.
Earlier in the meeting, a parent told the board that his child wouldn’t be going to Magnolia No. 2 under any circumstances. Others followed, pledging to transfer their children out of the district rather than have them go to the Mexican school. Ralston desperately tried to argue that petition signatures against the transfer compelled the district to honor it; trustees didn’t budge and argued that the school site didn’t fit the opposing parents’ description.
Lopez reaffirmed her support of the district’s decision. All would work out well, she assured them. Some parents already knew that to be true. A man told the board that his two daughters started at Magnolia No. 2 earlier that day and appreciated they’d be able to remain in full-day sessions.
Superintendent Kenneth Nielsen, who had taught sixth grade at the Mexican school, implored parents to go along with the only viable solution. By the end of the meeting, Ralston’s rebellion fizzled out, with the remaining parents backing the district’s plan by a majority show of hands. The next morning, all but 15 students were kept home from class. But tempers cooled, and most were back in school by the week’s end.
After the board meeting, Lopez went home and broke down in tears as she recounted the harsh words people had for La Colonia. She found a sense of conviction, one that transformed her into an activist who helped bring integrated schools, neighborhood improvements, a new church and a community center to La Colonia residents.
“Never again will people say that we don’t care about our community,” Lopez told her husband, Juan. “When they talk about us, it will be with respect.”
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Leadership coursed through Lopez’s veins by way of her immediate bloodline. Her father, Miguel Valdez, fought in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as a captain in Pancho Villa’s army; he lost an arm in battle. Miguel and his wife, Valentina, later started a family. Gloria was born on May 3, 1928, in El Paso, Texas. The couple split after their fourth child, Lilia, was born. Shortly after Lilia died of dysentery in 1931, Valentina and Gloria moved to East Los Angeles. (Gloria’s brothers stayed with their father in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.)
La Colonia Independencia had become an established Mexican-American community after the first plots of land next to a dense orange grove were sold in 1923. As with other colonias in OC at that time, it was home to the Mexican orange pickers and agricultural workers. The unincorporated island of county land—all three-and-a-half streets wide—lived up to its name with a sturdy, do-for-self attitude. By 1926, residents established the Colonia Mutual Water Co. After neighbors gathered enough signatures, a Catholic priest from St. Boniface in Anaheim built the Misión del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart Mission) church for them.
Rosa Guerrero, an early resident, advocated for La Colonia to have gas and electricity services—as well as a new school. In May 1928, voters approved a $14,000 bond to build Magnolia No. 2 on Garza Avenue. It opened for classes in 1929, a year after the city of Anaheim built its de jure La Palma Mexican school. Before La Colonia got its own schoolhouse, 50 children from the neighborhood traveled 2 miles to attend Magnolia No. 1; others stayed home because of the distance.
Lopez ended her formal education in the eighth grade so she could work to help her family; she lived part-time with her aunt and uncle in La Colonia. The neighborhood sent many of its sons, including Lopez’s future husband, into combat during WWII. They met and fell in love after Juan returned home. The two married in 1946 and bought a two-bedroom home in Long Beach that they moved over to La Colonia. Juan worked as a pipefitter for the city of Anaheim as the young couple added six children to the family.
Lopez followed in Guerrero’s footsteps after that fateful February 1955 school-board meeting. “It showed her that she did have a voice,” says Lopez-Perez. “That was just the beginning.”
The following school year, students and teachers from Magnolia No. 2’s integrated classrooms walked to the 20 acres of orange groves that would become the site of Dr. Jonas Salk Elementary, named for the famed scientist who developed the polio vaccine. “When we marched up from [Magnolia] No. 2 school with all the students, [we] picked oranges, had a groundbreaking ceremony, and then went back,” said Melvin Miller, the last principal of Magnolia No. 2, in a 2010 interview with the district. “That was the beginning of Salk school.”
In January 1957, the district transferred students to a completed Salk Elementary, regarded by the Times as the largest primary school in Southern California, if not the state. To mark the occasion, Boy and Girl Scouts brought the flags from the pole at Magnolia No. 2. Even though on opposing sides of the contentious school-board meeting, Ralston and Lopez walked arm-in-arm as they led a procession of students from La Colonia to the new school.
Miller, who became Salk’s first principal, captured the historic moments on film. Decades later, the district recovered the reel and asked Miller to narrate it. The footage shows Mexican and white students playing during recess on Salk’s first day of classes. “That was an exciting day,” said Miller in 2010. “The kids loved to play four square.”
Lopez continued her advocacy in education, becoming the first Mexican PTA president at Salk and later at Esther L. Walter Elementary, a school she helped to name for a former Magnolia No. 2 teacher.
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In fighting for school integration, Lopez was reminded of an epiphany she experienced as a young girl in Los Angeles. Passing by a church one day, Lopez heard the melodies of “Profeta,” which drew her inside. “That’s when she felt God became part of her,” says Lopez-Perez. “She knew God wanted her for something.”
With that devotion in her heart, Lopez founded and chaired the Sacred Heart Women’s Guild in 1959. The group became part of an overall community effort to build a bigger church. Lopez helped to organize fundraisers in La Colonia in the form of dinners, dances, raffles and jamaicas, for which the inexpensive hibiscus-flower drink served as the center of the community’s biggest social gatherings. Residents played bingo, bought pottery from Tijuana, and danced to corridos and polkas.
“My mom was always the life of the party,” says Lopez-Perez. “She could throw a grito better than any man.”
But all of Lopez’s causes competed with working part-time at Knott’s Berry Farm, raising her family, completing her high-school education and keeping her marriage—a traditional Mexican one—intact. Juan felt his wife was never home and always wanted to dance on weekends, even in the name of a new church. Together, the couple addressed the dispute before their priest. “He came and told my dad, ‘You have to take Gloria dancing every weekend,’” says Lopez-Perez. “‘This is the woman that you married, and you knew that she liked to dance!’”
Juan followed the priest’s advice; any future grievances would give way to prideful boasts of “mi Gloria,” as he talked of his wife’s accomplishments.
It took a lot of dancing at many jamaicas over the years for La Colonia’s working-class residents to collect enough donations for church authorities to take the next step. By 1966, the Sacred Heart Building Fund totaled $14,000, a sum that fell short of Father Hugh O’Connor’s challenge but proved sufficient to gain approval from Archbishop Timothy Manning in Los Angeles. La Colonia said goodbye to its old chapel and opened the doors for Mass on July 1, 1968, at the new Sacred Heart Mission church.
After that feat, Lopez met a woman destined to become a lifelong friend. Cynthia Coad, who’d be elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 1999, taught first-communion classes at La Colonia’s new church, where her youngest daughter completed the sacrament.
“That, believe it or not, was the only Spanish-language Mass site in Orange County,” says Coad. “The people who came to Sacred Heart Mission were recent arrivals. There was friction with ones who’d been in La Colonia since before the Second World War, some of whom didn’t know Spanish.”
Coad remembers Lopez as being friendly and efficient, a woman ahead of her time. While raising funds for a new church, the community activist had built relationships with the OC supervisors. Paved streets, sewers, sidewalks and street lights came to La Colonia in due time, washing away the bitter words spewed about her community at the school board meeting years before.
“When I first started volunteering with first-communion classes, the streets were dirt and chickens ran all over,” says Coad. “Gloria was so active in her community way before it became popular.”
* * *
Though the new Sacred Heart Mission had opened, the 40-year-old wooden chapel remained intact. Ray Villa, president of the Orange County Community Action Council, approached Lopez with the idea of opening a community center in La Colonia. Perhaps weary from years of organizing to open the new church, she hesitated at first. But Villa and residents finally convinced her.
“Without a [dedicated] space, the center started in our garage,” says Lopez-Perez. “My mother set up a desk outside and started calling. People would come. It didn’t last long, but it was the beginning.”
The garage hosted more meetings than social services or activities. Lopez looked for a vacant home in the barrio, but then asked a priest about converting the old mission church into a community center. He obliged, and the chapel reopened as the Anaheim Independencia Community Center on Aug. 1, 1967. Lopez served as its first executive director.
An extension of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, OC Community Action Council helped to establish nine centers throughout the county by 1969. Even though some infrastructure improvements had been introduced to La Colonia, it still had many social needs, which the new center sought to address. It offered a preschool, tutoring and an adult English class and served as La Colonia’s liaison between the Magnolia School District and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Lopez held an expansive vision, as inclusive as her education activism. “It shouldn’t be just a community center for Mexican Americans,” she said in a 1971 interview for Cal State Fullerton’s Mexican American Oral History Project. “It should be a community center where everybody comes and learns to get along with each other. It shouldn’t be a segregated thing. This is one of the things that we’re trying to do at Independencia is open it to all.”
Fluent in Spanish, Coad volunteered at the center’s preescuela. Lopez-Perez grew up at the center. “My mother wanted to have a lot of involvement for us kids,” she says. “We just had a lot of fun. Young romances were made there, and some couples are still married. It was a time to grow, have fun and be free.”
But the center itself soon bulged beyond its humble confines. The old church building had no plumbing, no playground equipment for preschool kids and cramped quarters for its employees. “The center is an active center in an area with a definite need,” wrote Coad in a 1978 assessment. “However, the setting does not stimulate growth. Indeed, the setting carries a symbolic message of being overwhelmed with negatives while striving to achieve positives.”
Lopez left her role as executive director in 1971 to become a community organizer with Community Action Council. But she stayed involved with the board of directors and tried to find a new building for a larger community center. An empty, grassy plot where Magnolia No. 2 used to be seemed the perfect fit. After persuading the county, a new center was built in 1980 with federal Community Development Block Grant funds. The Lopez family says they recruited Chicano artist Emigdio Vasquez to paint doves around the arch of its entrance.
Anaheim Independencia Community Center’s new digs represented the last of Lopez’s big community accomplishments in La Colonia. For a number of years, it operated on its own as a nonprofit. Lopez returned as executive director in 1982 at the behest of the board of directors to save the center from shuttering. Coad later retired from the North Orange County Community College District and started a scholarship at the center with her pension money. “It was for people from La Colonia who helped other people, not for grades,” she says. “That was one of the last things I did.”
In 1999, the Community Action Partnership of Orange County took control of the center. By then, Lopez was already in her 70s, yet she shepherded it the best she could through its ups and downs, never allowing it to go under.
“It was we,” Lopez always selflessly said. “It was never me.”
* * *
The unofficial Chicano national anthem, “Suavecito” by Malo, blares from a DJ’s speakers as a summertime reunion of La Colonia residents is in full swing on the grounds next to Anaheim Independencia Community Center. Elderly men who once attended Magnolia No. 2 eat tacos while sitting on benches that’ve long since replaced the school site. Displayed by the basketball court are historic pictures of La Colonia, including black-and-white class photos from the Mexican school’s days in the 1930s right up until integration.
It’s been 15 years since Lopez’s persistent, painful cough became lung cancer, a disease that claimed her life in 2004. But the community activist’s legacy remains firm in La Colonia through its pillars, including the center.
“This was her seventh child,” says Lopez-Perez, “the spoiled one.”
The center stays active with a robust senior program, La Colonia Market providing food and a baile folklórico group that uses the space for practice. Just weeks into her new job, center manager Maribel Sarabia shares her vision to bring after-school programs back with tutoring and mentoring, among other things. Sarabia also has a delicate balance to keep between La Colonia’s historical relationship to the center and the broader community it serves.
“Being so new, I need to go out and see what type of services are needed, along with what services the rest of the community asks for,” says Sarabia. “There are people that are from the community that do utilize this building. They want to have services of interest to the community.”
The residents she has met continue to revere Lopez. “She created that foundation to be here and empower others,” Sarabia says. “Hearing all the work she did, it’s amazing.”
Magnolia No. 2’s kindergarten building still stands, structurally integrated into Mattie Lou Maxwell Elementary, formerly Magnolia No. 1. Lopez’s early activism also laid the groundwork for the Magnolia School District, which is now 72 percent Latino, to continue flourishing. In a recent Learning Policy Institute study, the district’s Latino students were regarded as “high-achieving.” In fact, the district placed eighth in the state as a “positive outlier” for Latino student achievement.
Despite being a woman at the forefront of a small barrio with a big history, Lopez is often relegated to a passing mention or a mere footnote of even progressive treatments of Anaheim’s Mexican past. But she definitely left an impression during her time. “My mom was very well-known throughout Orange County,” says Lopez-Perez, who still lives in La Colonia. “Prior to her passing, she received numerous awards, [though ] she wasn’t able to attend [the ceremonies] because her cancer had gotten so bad.”
Coad nominated her longtime friend for many awards, including the honor of being one of Orange County United Way’s Hispanic Influentials; the achievement was recognized just before Lopez’s death. Coad believes Lopez doesn’t get the credit she deserves, especially for the role she played in integrating Anaheim schools. “She was courageous and someone to look up to; a leader and a saint,” Coad says. “You don’t have to be canonized to be a saint.”
Ten years ago, Coad and Lopez-Perez assembled La Colonia Independencia, a bound collection of history and memories from the barrio with a big emphasis on Lopez. She’s the woman, after all, whose gritos at jamaicas also served as a political cry as liberating to La Colonia as Father Miguel Hidalgo’s was to a newly emerging Mexican nation two centuries ago.
“It was a grito for our neighborhood, for the center and for the church,” says Lopez-Perez. “It was a grito for the Mexicanos. She fought for the Mexicans.”
Gloria Lopez and the history of Anaheim’s Mexican American heroes appear as part of Canto de Anaheim at Pearson Park Amphitheatre, 401 Lemon St., Anaheim, (714) 755-5799; pacificsymphony.org. Sat., 7 p.m. Free.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!