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Josephine Jimenez dies at 100; pioneering Latina educator

Considered by colleagues as the first Latina and second female high school principal in L.A. Unified, Josephine Jimenez spent more than 30 years at Hamilton High.

September 24, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Josephine Jimenez, center, is considered L.A. Unified's first Latina principal of a senior high school. She also helped integrate Hamilton High.
Josephine Jimenez, center, is considered L.A. Unified's first Latina… (Los Angeles Times )

Josephine Jimenez, a Los Angeles educator who broke through a glass ceiling to run a high school and become a leader and supervisor of principals, has died at 100.

Jimenez is widely regarded by former colleagues as the first Latina and the second female high school principal in Los Angeles Unified — the district didn't record such milestones. As a teacher, she also started the district's first folklorico dance group.

She died Sept. 15 of complications related to old age, according to her family.

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Although Jimenez rose to become director of operations for high schools and oversaw the Academic Decathlon in its early years, she most prized more than three decades at Hamilton High — as teacher, vice principal and then principal.

She shepherded the Westside school through cultural conflict in the 1960s and '70s and through racial tensions as an influx of black families precipitated white flight. She helped start and nurture two highly respected magnet schools, in music and the humanities, that persuaded some of those families to return.

"I was there for 32 years and I helped the school transition during very, very difficult years of the social, political revolution, where the kids came to school barefooted, long hair, no bath — that sort of thing," she recalled in a family video recorded in her 90s.

Later, of the demographic shifts, she said, "We really had to work our butts off to create programs and to help people emotionally ... instead of trying to pretend everything was fine."

It was the style of Jimenez, who stood just under 5 feet tall, to confront challenges head on.

"Jo Jimenez was extraordinarily dynamic and tough as all get-out," said retired Associate Supt. Paul Possemato.

While overseeing high schools, she often attended community meetings where conflicts arose over another demographic shift in South L.A., as Latino families moved into formerly black-majority neighborhoods.

When arguments broke out, "she stopped them and said, 'Why are we here at this meeting? Are we not here to talk about the kids and what they need?' " said Maria Torres-Flores, who assisted Jimenez and now serves as principal of Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Boyle Heights.

Josephine Casanova was born in bustling Ciego de Avila, Cuba, on March 14, 1912. Her prosperous father managed banking and agricultural interests and sent his only child to boarding school in Georgia. Josephine also studied piano, violin and painting, developing her lifelong commitment to arts education.

But the family's fortunes declined, and they moved to Los Angeles, where Josephine attended public schools, graduating from Jefferson High in 1932.

"My father didn't see any reason for me to go to college," she recalled later. "He said, 'You've finished your piano. You've finished your high school. You don't have to do anything. Just stay here.' I said, 'I have to go. I want to go.' And I had scholarships."

She graduated from UCLA with a major in languages and a minor in dance. She was hired for her first teaching job in Barstow because she also could conduct the orchestra.

She met Oscar M. Jimenez as a student at UCLA. They married on July 4, 1942, but by then, she was already teaching at Chaffey High in Ontario. Her principal congratulated her, then fired her, because local strictures forbade married women from being teachers.

She then worked three years in the war censorship office, reading letters sent home by farmworkers to Central America; she never found anything seditious.

Her next post, as a Spanish teacher at Garfield High, lasted from 1945 to 1954. During those years, she spent summers in Mexico, studying dance and culture; her husband, a Spanish teacher at University High on the Westside, made instructional films during their travels.

Garfield had an increasing Latino minority; its principal encouraged Jimenez to teach folklorico. The group, open to all, performed throughout the region.

"But the teachers, especially the teachers in the social studies department, were very, very angry and they were very, very suspicious," Jimenez recalled. "I don't know what they thought was happening, but something subversive."

Jimenez transferred to Hamilton to be closer to family. When she became principal in 1971, Jimenez overcame presumptions that only a man, preferably an athletic coach, could handle a high school. Her male colleagues elected Jimenez to head their professional association.

A still-energetic Jimenez retired from L.A. Unified in 1992 at 80, to focus on becoming "principal of the house," as her son put it, with the birth of a grandchild.

Jimenez's husband died in 1973.

Survivors include her only child, Carlos, a teacher; two grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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