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A first-class celebration in O.C.

Children whose parents' suit integrated Latinos into schools in 1947 attend the unveiling of a 41-cent commemorative stamp in Orange.

April 15, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

The historic case that desegregated Orange County public schools 60 years ago has been commemorated with a postage stamp unveiled Saturday in a ceremony honoring five Mexican American men who sued for the right to send their children to school with other American kids.

The 41-cent stamp recognizing Mendez vs. Westminster School District features two brown-skinned children, a boy and a girl, reading a book with stars in the background symbolizing the unlimited horizons accessible through education. The inscription reads: "Toward equality in our schools."

The stamp was displayed at Chapman University in Orange at a ceremony attended by about 400 people, including members of three families involved in the suit.

"Nothing was ever explained to us about our role in history," said Jose Ramirez, 69, a retired landscaper from Grand Terrace whose father, Lorenzo, was one of the plaintiffs. The others were William Guzman, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada and Gonzalo Mendez, for whom the case is named.

"Nobody ever spoke about it," Jose Ramirez said.

Mendez' three children attended a segregated school in Westminster, while the other four had children attending schools in the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and the old El Modena districts.

All four districts were named in the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 5,000 Latino children in Orange County. The 1946 ruling by Los Angeles U.S. District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick desegregating the schools affected only Latino children, but it led to the statewide dismantling of school segregation laws applying to other ethnic groups.

Though civil rights groups were prepared to make the Orange County case a national test case, the school districts chose not to appeal any further after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McCormick's ruling in 1947.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case until seven years later, in 1954.

Testimony in the Mendez case revealed the discriminatory views held by some local educators. One testified that Latino children had trouble learning English because their "cultural background" did not expose them to Mother Goose rhymes. Another, according to court records, maintained that "Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability and in their economic outlook."

On Saturday, Ramirez recounted his father's role in the lawsuit that, he said, was as much about overcoming bigotry as about changing the law. Lorenzo Ramirez sued, the son said, so that he and his brothers, Ignacio and Silvino, could attend school with Anglo children in El Modena, which had two elementary schools, one for whites and the other for Latinos.

He said it was only 10 years ago that his family learned of its participation in the case, which his youngest brother, Henry, discovered while researching the role of Latinos in the civil rights movement.

"It floored us," Ramirez said. "My dad was a laborer all his life. But you try to get into his shoes and you'll find you can't fill them."

The new stamp will be available in September, at the beginning of the 2007 school year.

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hgreza@latimes.com

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