Gloria Lopez, a civic pioneer who successfully fought segregation in the Magnolia School District and founded a community center in a small unincorporated North County area called Colonia Independencia 37 years ago, died Friday after a seven-month bout with lung cancer. She was 75.
Just last month, Lopez was recognized at a United Way banquet with a lifetime achievement award. Her illness kept her from attending, but a son accepted the award on her behalf.
Lopez died at her Anaheim home surrounded by family members, said the son, Albert Lopez, 51.
Jovita Castillo, 76, a lifelong friend of Gloria Lopez who still answers phones as a volunteer at the community center, saw the coroner's van pull into her friend's driveway across the street.
"Jovita and my mom were inseparable," the son said. "When Jovita came up the driveway using her metal walker, tears were coming down her face. We then knew. The impact hit us that our mother had really gone."
Former Orange County Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, who nominated Lopez for the award because of her desegregation work and community leadership, called Lopez "my mentor, my friend."
They met more than 29 years ago, when Coad began volunteering at the community center to teach English to barrio residents. In turn, Coad learned about Latino culture and to speak Spanish.
"Basically, everything I know of community, I learned from her," said Coad. "She has changed so many lives."
Lopez was passionate about her barrio. Colonia Independencia is nearly a square mile of mostly older, wood-frame homes, and looks nothing like surrounding Anaheim.
From its beginnings, the Colonia was surrounded by orange groves. Lopez often said early residents built small homes and outhouses, sometimes from wood scavenged from old railroad cars.
Lopez established and kept ties to county officials who could help her blighted neighborhood. She worked for many improvements, including new streets, gutters, lighting and sewer connections.
She held a range of jobs as a farm worker and then gift wrapper at Knott's Berry Farm. The responsibilities of work, six children and community meetings often created friction at home, especially with her husband, Juan Lopez, who died at age 83 in 1997.
"Dad was all Mexican and he used to argue that 'a woman's place is in the home.' But she would argue that she knew what she had to do," said another of Lopez's sons, John Lopez, 55, a college administrator in Grants Pass, Ore.
Her sons attended a Mexican-only public school, Magnolia School No. 2, across the street from their home.
"Oh, they didn't put a sign out and say 'Mexican only,' but that's what it was," said John Lopez.
At the time, the all-white school was Magnolia School No. 1, he said.
When the school district planned to build a second all-white school in the area, Gloria Lopez confronted trustees. She challenged the board, asking them to force the white children to attend the small, barrio school, said family members.
The board acquiesced. But after many white parents refused to send their children there, an agreement was reached, under Lopez's leadership, to close the barrio school and let its children attend the new school.
Lopez is survived by daughters Elizabeth Briones and Alice Perez, both of Anaheim; and sons Daniel and Albert of Anaheim, Richard of Santa Maria, and John of Grants Pass, Ore.; 12 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
A rosary will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, 2425 W. Lincoln Ave., in Anaheim.
Mass is Wednesday at 10 a.m. at St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Anaheim.