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'Mexican School' Alumni to Hold La Habra Reunion : Education: It has been closed for 40 years, but graduates of segregated Wilson school still remember.

September 05, 1990|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA HABRA — Estella Reynoso remembers the slap. She was in the third grade with other Mexican-American children from a nearby migrant camp and was one of the few who could speak English.

"I remember the teacher asking me to read out loud from a book in English. I stumbled on a difficult word and couldn't say it. The teacher got up from her desk, came over to me and slapped me hard in the face," Reynoso said.

"You see, we couldn't speak Spanish at Wilson School in those days, and I guess she got mad at me because she wanted to use me as a good example of a Mexican who could speak English," said Reynoso, now a 50-year-old mother of two, who plans to attend an unusual reunion Saturday.

Opened in 1920, Wilson was nothing more than a series of weathered, gray-colored barracks known then as the "Mexican school." Its student body, almost entirely Latino, consisted of the children of Mexican farm workers who irrigated and picked oranges and lemons. White students went to another school.

Forty years after the closure of Wilson Grammar School, its graduates, like Reynoso, who was forced to attend the racially segregated school, are holding a reunion at the old American Legion Hall in La Habra.

Wilson's alumni have become educators, homemakers, librarians, attorneys and elected officials. A list of Who's Who among the graduates includes Jesus (Jess) Flores, who pitched professionally in the old Pacific Coast League and became a baseball scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates; Louis H. Zuniga, who became the first Mexican-American to be elected to the La Habra City Council; and Cruz Reynoso (no relation to Estella Reynoso), who became a state Supreme Court justice.

"It definitely was a segregated school," recalled Candalario Mendoza, 71, from Pomona, who will be recognized at the reunion as the first Mexican-American teacher hired in La Habra. "It was 100% Mexican, and it was comprised of mostly Mexican-Americans. It was a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school and it had about 200 kids."

The school was nestled near the citrus groves of the Bastanchury Ranch and near the Orange Packing Co., one of the largest in Orange County at that time. Mendoza recalled that there were about 42 students to a classroom, which were old Army barracks brought from the Army Air Force base in Costa Mesa to the school site at 2nd and California streets. Condominiums have replaced the old school, which has since been razed.

Alfredo Zuniga, 57, who attended Wilson, said the barracks school stood in stark contrast to Lincoln Grammar School, the new, brick schoolhouse across town that opened in 1920 for the district's white students.

"In those days, Wilson was for the Mexicans and Lincoln was for the whites. It was truly separate and unequal," said Zuniga, who is a librarian in East Los Angeles.

Reynoso, the former justice who now is in private practice, said the grammar school had a very "important influence" in his life. He, like many of the others, has bittersweet memories.

"When we went to register for school at the brick school, they told us, 'No. You don't go here. You have to go to Wilson.' Wilson had these wooden barracks, it looked very second-class to us. We asked why are we being sent to this school. They said, 'Because you're being sent here to learn English.' To my older brothers and I, it sounded suspicious. We were raised in Brea and already knew English."

Yet Reynoso recalled learning about art and United States geography, and developing a love for education that helped carry him through college and law school.

Mendoza said the district promoted English under the theory that if the children were to ever get good jobs they would have to learn it. He agreed, in part, but also felt "it was a shame" that the children couldn't speak Spanish in school.

When Mendoza was hired in 1942, he said, "The Mexican parents thought it was just great to have a teacher who could speak Spanish, while the white teaching staff thought I was a novelty. We were so separated from the Anglo community in La Habra that they probably didn't even know there was a Mexican-American teacher."

He found a small apartment to rent in La Habra. On his days off and after school, he would drive his young students around town in his 1937 blue Chevrolet as a reward for outstanding academic work.

"I would say to them, if they read this story or that book, then I would take them to a movie theater or a basketball game. I was strict with them, but I didn't have to worry about discipline. Not after the first day," Mendoza said, adding that they had to sit in the rear of the theater because it was also segregated.

Mendoza said parents would show up on the first day of school to visit him. They brought in small tree limbs or belts, and they would tell him in Spanish: "There is my son Raymundo. He is the one sitting over there in the corner. Here's the belt that I want you to use on him if he acts out of turn."

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