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What Mr. Cross didn't teach us

The O.C. does its darndest to wipe its Latino past from the official narrative.

June 21, 2007|Gustavo Arellano | GUSTAVO ARELLANO is a contributing editor to Opinion and author of the new book "¬°Ask a Mexican!"

MY HISTORY TEACHER in high school was a good man, but we sure didn't learn much in his class. We read about Brown vs. Board of Education, but not that its roots were in Mendez vs. Westminster, the landmark 1946 case that ended segregation in Orange County schools. Heard about the Depression -- but not about how local police and sheriff's deputies brutally repressed a strike at a citrus grove just down the road from Anaheim High. Learned about Orange County's German settlers, Disneyland, even the rise of our peculiar conservatism -- but nothing about Latinos, despite our school being more than 75% Latino.

I don't hold anything against Mr. Cross, though. More than likely, he didn't know Orange County history either -- not because my teacher was ignorant but because the county fathers did their darndest to wipe its official narrative clean of Mexicans.

They're still at it. Earlier this week, organizers for Huntington Beach's Fourth of July parade -- one of the largest west of the Mississippi -- considered an application from Sandra Robbie. The Orange County native has for several months crisscrossed the country in a Volkswagen bus nicknamed "The Magical History Tour" to teach children about Mendez vs. Westminster. Riding shotgun was Sylvia Mendez, the namesake plaintiff.

Mendez's parents sued the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena school districts after Westminster officials denied her and her brother entry into a whites-only school while admitting their lighter-skinned cousins. During the trial, school administrators argued that Mexican students were intellectually inferior to their white peers and thus unworthy of better school conditions.

The Mendez family won in federal court and on appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ending school segregation in Orange County. The case also inspired California Gov. Earl Warren to make its mandate state law, a precedent that played a key role in his Supreme Court ruling on the more-famous Brown vs. Board of Education when he was chief justice almost a decade later.

Including Mendez and Robbie, who produced an Emmy-winning documentary about the case, in the Huntington Beach festivities seemed a natural: local history, an orange VW bus and a living, breathing legend. But parade organizers rejected their application.

The main reason, according to a parade spokesperson, was that the women "didn't have enough entertainment value," a risible assertion considering this year's guests include such Tinseltown icons as Jacklyn Zeman and Justin Chon. More shocking, however, the same spokesperson told reporters that Robbie's application "was more about this woman's self-promotion." Parade organizers later reconsidered the request but still insisted that "The Magical History Tour" be "more fun."

And so goes Orange County's Latino history -- not only is it deemed insignificant, but anyone trying to promote it better shake their bom-boms while they're at it.

It's not surprising, however, that Huntington Beach parade organizers dismissed Mendez vs. Westminster so easily. To allow the "The Magical History Tour" bus would acknowledge Orange County's sordid past with its Mexicans -- and the subsequent erasure of them from the history books.

Orange County's relationship with its Latino roots is superficial at best. Half of the cities feature names in either Spanish or Spanglish, and every other new cul de sac in ritzy South County seems to be called Las Flores or Coto de Caza. Yet Latinos only rate a mention in county history when talking about the Mission San Juan Capistrano and the romanticized Spanish settlers of California. Iconic moments in county history -- the Great Flood of 1938 (which killed 38 people), the Citrus War of 1936 -- get short shrift, if any mention, because most of the protagonists were Latinos.

What passes for the best overall account of Orange County --"A Hundred Years of Yesterdays: A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and their Communities," written by a collective of local historians -- devotes three sentences to Mendez vs. Westminster and not a word to the Citrus War or the Great Flood.

Even worse, a history timeline on the Orange County government website makes no mention of Latinos; instead, it highlights the county's "colorful pageantry of human history" by noting the opening dates of Fashion Island, South Coast Plaza and Disneyland.

It's telling that a Mendez sibling had to find out about the significance of her family's case outside of Orange County. Sylvia's younger sister first read about it while studying at UC Riverside in the 1970s, in a book by the great progressive historian Carey McWilliams. It's become a cause celebre in Orange County classrooms in this century -- there is even a middle school named after Sylvia Mendez's parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas -- but only because of the indefatigable spirit of septuagenarian Sylvia.

I'm betting Huntington Beach will eventually allow Mendez and Robbie's bus to cruise the city's parade route, only because these patriots already sparked a well-deserved controversy.

Regardless of what happens, though, consider this incident a clarion call for Orange County. Those footsteps you hear are the march of Latino O.C.'s ghosts scrambling to the forefront, resigned to the barrios of history no more.

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