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  • Placing the et al. Back in Mendez v. Westminster:Hector Tarango and the Mexican American Movement to End Segregation in the Social and Political Borderlands of Orange County, California
  • David-James Gonzales (bio)

This article focuses on unheralded actors and events. I have chosen to center its narrative on the emergence of a civil rights movement among the Mexican colonias and barrios of Orange County, California. This is an important area of investigation within civil rights scholarship, as the desegregation battles that culminated in the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education had precedence in the southern California municipalities of Westminster, Santa Ana, Orange, El Modena, and Garden Grove. Employing the experiences and activism of Hector Tarango and the unheralded grassroots efforts leading up to the Mendez et al. decision as a case study for examining the emergence of a Mexican American civil rights movement in postwar Orange County, this project examines the intersections of race, space, and politics among Mexican Americans in southern California. With a particular focus on multiracial communities, such as Boyle Heights, and segregated spaces, such as Orange County, this project adds a spatial dimension to the identity formation and political mobilization of postwar Mexican Americans. Viewing public spaces—such as streets, convenience stores, classrooms, the workplace, and the courtroom—as contact zones in which members of various ethnoracial and cultural groups express competing identities, politics, and visions of society, this article merges the scholarship of borderlands history, critical geography, and interracial civil rights history to point out the ways in which public space in Orange County existed as a type [End Page 31] of social and political borderlands in the politicization of second-generation Mexican Americans.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1932, an adolescent, Hector Tarango, was attending Sunday worship services at a Methodist congregation in El Modena, California. On his way inside the chapel, Hector noticed the peculiar sight of two elementary schools standing adjacent to each other, albeit separated by an open field and a wire fence. Hector observed that one of the schools, Roosevelt Elementary, was noticeably newer—featuring Spanish Mission–style architecture with a clean stucco exterior, columns, large commons areas, and a row of palm trees. The other school, Lincoln Elementary, had clearly fallen into disrepair, having a much older brick exterior and a less inviting landscape. On learning that the pristine-looking Roosevelt was for white students only while Lincoln was reserved for Mexican students, Hector recalled, "That shook me up tremendously, because I didn't realize they were doing that [segregating Mexican American schoolchildren]."1

Born into an ethnic Mexican working-class family and raised in multiracial communities, such as Clifton, Arizona, and the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Hector developed interethnic relationships with peers and neighbors that produced a multicultural understanding of the world around him. Hector's multiracial worldview was abruptly challenged that Sunday afternoon with the realization that one's language, culture, and skin tone provided justification for second-class treatment. Running counter to his lived experience, Hector was politicized at an early age by the segregated landscape of Orange County. Lacking a college education or any other type of formal training, Hector drew from his multicultural experiences and his hybridized Mexican American identity as the impetus for a lifetime of community service and social activism aimed at curtailing civil injustice. Years after his initial experience with racial discrimination, Hector became a key figure in the grassroots efforts that led to the landmark decision Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al. (1947), which ended de jure segregation in California's public schools and "served as a dry run" for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) seven years later.2

On February 18, 1946, the senior district court judge of Los Angeles, Paul J. McCormick, ruled in favor of plaintiffs Gonzalo Mendez, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada, and Lorenzo Ramirez in the class-action lawsuit Mendez et al. v. Westminster et al. Sending shockwaves throughout the Juan Crow Southwest as well as the Jim Crow South, the Mendez et al. decision was a watershed moment for the educational rights of nonwhites in the United States and set...


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