Mendez vs. Westminster, OC Latino History, and the Ever-Revealing-Itself Genius of Carey McWilliams

This week's cover story on the controversy in the retelling of the historic Mendez vs. Westminster decision has a brief mention of the case's best chronicler: the great progressive historian Carey McWilliams. The Fullerton College professor quoted in the story isn't the first person to admit they originally heard about the landmark desegregation lawsuit in McWilliams' 1948 book North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States–no less a figure than Sandra Mendez, the youngest sister of Sylvia, says she learned about her family's involvement when reading the book during the 1970s for a UC Riverside Chicano Studies class.

McWilliams devoted three pages to the story, two-and-three-quarter more pages than the totality of Orange County chroniclers bothered to give their locale's greatest contribution to American civil rights until the 1990s (Leo Friis' 1965 Orange County Through Four Centuries gave but a paragraph). This followed his March 15, 1947 article in The Nation (of which he would eventually edit) on Mendez vs. Westminster titled, “Is Your Name Gonzales?” in which he prophetically wrote that the “decision may sound the death knell of Jim Crow in education.”

But the Mendez trial wasn't the first time McWilliams beat Orange County historians at writing about the county's tortured relationship with Mexicans.
McWilliams remains the best chronicler of the Citrus War, the 1936 strike that saw thousands of Mexican orange pickers strike, much to the displeasure of the county's lords. Like Mendez vs. Westminster, he covered it as both a journalist (the title of our blog category for history posts, Gunkist Memories, is ripped off from his article, “Gunkist Oranges” for the Pacific Weekly) and in his books Factories in the Field and Southern California Country: An Island on the Land. In the latter McWilliams remembered being “astonish[ed] in discovering how quickly social
power could crystallize into an expression of arrogant brutality in
these lovely, seemingly placid, outwardly Christian communities,” a description that still remains the best indictment of Orange County ever written.

What does it say about us that the two most important events in Orange County Latino history were not only virtually ignored by local historians for decades, but that it took an outsider to cover them?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *