A Truth that Had to be Told: Uncovering the History of School Segregation in El Monte

In memory of Olga Gutiérrez, 1937-2016

The professor started talking about segregation in the South, of blacks, of Brown v. Board of Education … so after class I went up to the professor, and I said, “Hey professor, were you aware of the segregation of the Mexican-American students all over the Southwest, including California?”… He said, “I know nothing about it.”[1]

Olga Gutiérrez, a Mexican-American teacher and activist in El Monte, California, was working on a Master’s degree at California State University, Los Angeles. It was 1980, 26 years after the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation, or the policy of dividing children into different schools on the basis of race, was illegal in Brown v. Board of Education. Talking segregation meant talking about the separation of white and black children in the South. But Gutiérrez knew that segregation was also part of the recent history of her own community.

Olga.

Sharing this information with her professor, Gutiérrez realized that something had happened in El Monte that was historically important yet mostly forgotten. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Mexican-American children had attended segregated schools, and a coalition of parents and Anglo allies had brought an end to this practice in 1945, well before the 1954 Brown decision. When Gutiérrez wrote a Master’s thesis to tell this story of desegregation in El Monte, she described it as a story of “things that ought not to be forgotten even though they are painful.”[2] For her, this pain was personal. When she attended elementary school herself in the 1940s, she found that Spanish, the only language she spoke at the time, was prohibited. Her mouth would be taped shut as punishment for speaking her mother tongue at school.[3] In 1980, as an established Mexican-American professional and graduate student, Gutiérrez set out to understand how segregation began and ended in El Monte.

In the Southwest, segregation was not technically based upon race, and it was not result of state-level laws like those that existed in the South. In California, segregation was the product of decisions made at the local level by school district superintendents, school boards, and principals with the support of white communities. By law, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were considered white, even though they were actually treated as people of color and faced systematic violence and exclusion.[4]

School districts did not explicitly refer to race but used other criteria to keep Mexican-American children in separate, inadequate schools, claiming that segregation actually benefited children with particular educational needs. As one Texas superintendent explained, his district separated Mexican- and Anglo-American children in order to provide Spanish speakers with English-language instruction and to accommodate the arrival of Mexican-American migrant children to the district late in the school year.[5] Yet these justifications masked the reality of separate and inferior education opportunities for Mexican-American children throughout the Southwest.

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Photo Courtesy of La History Society, El Monte

This happened in El Monte as well, where segregation began in 1923. Until then, Mexican-American children attended school alongside Anglo-American children. But in that year, as El Monte’s Mexican-descended population was growing rapidly and school facilities were becoming overcrowded, the local school board decided that a new school building (Columbia School) would be built to serve only the Anglo-American population. Mexican-American children would remain at the older facility, Lexington School, which was referred to in 1927 school board minutes to as the “Mexican school.”[6] In fact, the school population was not entirely of Mexican descent since Japanese-American children also attended. Only later, in 1938, did the El Monte School District make its reasoning for segregation explicit: “Children coming from non-English speaking families” were “required to attend the Lexington School regardless of the area in which they live.”[7] In reality, arguments about language skills were only a weak justification for what was effectively racial segregation, as historian Mario García notes: “Ironically, most children never left the Mexican schools even after they had learned English.”[8]

At the segregated Lexington School, there were no Mexican-American or Spanish-speaking teachers.[9] Former students interviewed by Gutiérrez remembered physical abuse from their teachers, low expectations for academic achievement, and inadequate facilities, as well as some well-meaning teachers.[10] In an oral history interview conducted in the late 1970s, Augustine Ramos spoke of his years at Lexington with Mexican- and Japanese-American classmates, noting that only in the fifth grade, when all the Lexington students would transfer to Columbia School, did he see “little Anglo kids” for the first time. “You can imagine … how much we lagged behind,” Ramos said.[11] From the 1920s to 1940s, students at Lexington School simply did not have the same resources, academic support, or opportunities as did their Anglo peers at other El Monte schools.

By World War II, as calls to end racial discrimination gained increasing public support throughout the country, many groups in El Monte sought to end segregation in their own community. Gutiérrez notes the contributions of Anglo allies. The key figures were Reverend Dwight Ramage and his wife Holly, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, and Father John Coffield, who served Catholic parishioners in El Monte. Father Coffield is still remembered by many in El Monte as a staunch ally of Mexican-Americans who stood alongside them in many civil rights struggles. When the Ramages arrived in El Monte in 1942, they were struck by the obvious segregation and inequality in the town’s elementary schools, and along with Coffield, the Ramages wanted to change the situation. The Ramages and Father Coffield collaborated with local Mexican-American leaders like Don Ignacio Gutiérrez (Olga Gutiérrez’s father-in-law) and a larger group of Mexican-American parents.[12] Groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Federation of Hispanic American Voters mobilized against segregation in El Monte as well.[13]

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Photo Courtesy of La Historia Society, El Monte

However, Gutiérrez found that the catalyst for desegregation came from a Mexican-American family’s refusal to accept segregation in 1945. This family moved to the area and found that they could not enroll their young daughter in their local school, Cleminson, “because of her Spanish surname”; she would have to attend Lexington instead. The family hired a prominent lawyer, Manuel Ruiz, and along with the Mexican-American community, they organized two large meetings to rally support for desegregation.[14] They planned to sue the school board, but Reverend Ramage and Father Coffield suggested “confronting the district at a school board meeting” first. Years later, Reverend Ramage remembered how “the Mexican-American community lent the spark” to desegregation efforts “by being so militant and angry” that they were willing to sue. Ramage and Coffield, on the other hand, were hoping “to end segregation with as little antagonism as possible.”[15]

In the end, the lawsuit was not necessary. At the April 1945 school board meeting, El Monte’s Mexican-American parents and their allies successfully lobbied to end segregation in the district by the beginning of the following school year.[16] This seemed to spell the end of segregation in the school district after 22 years of separate schools for Mexican- and Anglo-American children.

El Monte parents were not the only ones to fight against segregation in their community during this era. Before and after their struggle, other communities brought cases against school districts to local courts, but judges often ruled in favor of school districts’ right to separate students as they saw fit for so-called educational reasons. In two California cases in 1931 and 1946, parents’ efforts did bring legal victories, although these rulings did not have the broader impact that parents might have hoped for.[17] While many scholars have written about these court cases, the El Monte case has attracted less notice, probably because there integration came from a school board decision. However, the fact that parents did not have to sue illustrates the strength of their community organizing. They were a force that school district officials could not ignore, and the Board quickly assented to their demands.

But the story continued after the desegregation victory. Gutiérrez’s research also showed that even after a favorable decision the school board could not eradicate racism in the broader community. This anti-Mexican prejudice had deep roots and would continue to affect Mexican-American children in the community. Gutiérrez learned that in El Monte, “as soon as the Anglo community learned about desegregation” that would bring together Anglo- and Mexican-American children together in the same school, Anglo parents asked for school-wide checks for head lice.[18] The district superintendent agreed to this request that undoubtedly stemmed from Anglo parents’ racist stereotypes about the Mexican-American community’s supposed lack of hygiene.[19] Gutiérrez notes that “interestingly enough,” the children who did have head lice were not Mexican-American.[20]

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Father Coffield, top right. Photo Courtesy of La Historia Society, El Monte

With prejudice still strong in El Monte even after desegregation, it is not surprising that in her interviews with former students of Lexington School, she found that integration had also been a painful experience. Some even remembered segregated Lexington fondly. Never having seen the privileges they might have at an integrated school, Mexican-American children simply accepted as normal the school they had to attend. Some Mexican- and Japanese-American students even enjoyed their time together: “Oh, we had a lot of fun. We didn’t think anything of it,” remembered Lupe Ruiz in a 1970s interview.[21] As one former student told Gutiérrez, when they moved to Columbia School, “the Anglo kids made fun of us—made fun of our food, our customs. In the segregated school, it was secure.”[22] Another explained that it was only after being integrated that Mexican-American students realized that they “were not prepared” compared to their Anglo peers.[23]

Clearly, the negative impacts of segregation in El Monte did not end with the school board’s decision to integrate. Indeed, Gutiérrez points out that her interviewees were among the small number of Lexington graduates who had achieved professional success or middle-class stability.[24] As one interviewee pointed out, the experience of segregation at the Lexington School “set in motion a force that few were able to overcome.”[25]

Furthermore, because Southwestern communities had used indirect, de facto strategies to segregate children, there was no easy legal solution to achieve integration in places like El Monte. Segregation of Mexican-American students persisted for several decades after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Integration efforts were hampered by the fact that Brown could apply only in situations in which students were legally classified by their race and suffered as a result of this explicit racial discrimination, but segregation of Mexican-Americans often operated in more subtle ways.[26] Only in 1970 did a Supreme Court case involving the Corpus Christi, Texas school district firmly establish that Mexican-Americans, regardless of their racial status, were a socially recognized ethnic minority, and that the provision of Brown applied to them, too.[27]

Still, in 1971, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that half of Mexican-American schoolchildren in the Southwest attended schools with a Mexican-American majority, and a quarter of these students attended schools whose Mexican-American population reached 85 to 100 percent.[28] As late as 1971, “nearly half of the 30 elementary schools” in the El Monte area were found to be ethnically “imbalanced” according to standards set by the state of California to ensure that the demographics of individual schools matched those of the entire district population.[29]

In other words, even though El Monte parents formed a robust, politically active Mexican-American community, their desegregation victory did not bring an end to segregating tendencies and racist attitudes that continued to shape the school experiences of El Monte’s Mexican-American children. Nor could integration erase the harm done to the generations of students who attended Lexington School. In 2015, the late Ernie Gutiérrez, Olga’s husband and an El Monte community leader, said that school segregation had caused “severe damage” to the Mexican-descended population of his hometown.[30] Gutiérrez identified this damage as psychological harm to Mexican-Americans’ sense of self-worth: students coming from segregated schools suffered from “feelings of inferiority” when they “were forced to compete with Anglo students” who had received better academic preparation. In addition to this unfair competition, Anglo students often mocked their Mexican-American classmates for being culturally different.[31]

As the effects of segregation have lingered—and segregation in poorly disguised forms continues to exist—it is critical to document and share stories of segregation in places like El Monte. Olga Gutiérrez knew this in 1981 when she described her thesis as a “search for a truth that had to be told.”[32] But there are only two available copies of Gutiérrez’ thesis, shelved in university collections that are difficult for the public to access. Much like the history she recovered, Gutiérrez’s research has not received the attention it deserves.

About the Author

Rachel Grace Newman is a Ph.D. Candidate in International & Global History at Columbia University where she is working on her dissertation, “Training Transnational Mexicans: U.S.-Educated Professionals, Social Class, and State Formation in the Twentieth Century.” Her research has been funded by the Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship of the Social Science Research Council and the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award given by the U.S. Department of Education. She is the author of Los niños migrantes entre Michoacán y California, published in 2014.

East of East Series

1. SEMAP, “Making Place: Mapping South El Monte and El Monte”

2. Yesenia Barragan and Mark Bray, “Ricardo Flores Magón & the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California”

3. Nick Juravich, “‘City of Achievement’: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976″

4. Vickie Vertiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra”

5. Michael Jaime-Becerra, “1181 Durfee Avenue: 1983 to 1986″

6. Jude Webre, “I’d Know Where to Find You: Art Laboe’s Charmed Life On Air”

7. Maria John, “Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape”

8. Jennifer Renteria, “The Starlite Swap Meet”

9. Wendy Cheng, “A Brief History (and Geography) of the San Gabriel Valley”

10. Eric Frith, “The Rebellion against the Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors, 1785″

11. Alexandra M. Landeros, “Toni Margarita Plummer: Writing Her Way Home in  The Bolero of Andi Rowe”

12. Carribean Fragoza, “Rush”

13. Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, “‘The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Scene”

14. Polo Morales, “Punk and the Seamstress”

15. Daniel Morales, “Hicks Camp: A Mexican Barrio” 

16. Toni Plummer, “10911 Michael Hunt Drive”

17. Andre Kobayashi Deckrow, “A Community Erased: Japanese Americans in El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley”

18. Michael Weller, “El Monte’s Wild Past: A History of Gay’s Lion Farm”

19. Juan Herrera, “¡La Lucha Continua! Gloria Arellanes and the Making of a Chicano Movement in El Monte and Beyond”

20. Melquiades Fernandez, “The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933”

21. Karen S. Wilson and Daniel B. Lynch, “Who Were the Monte Boys?”

22. Ryan Reft, “From Small Farming to Urban Agriculture: El Monte and Subsistence Homesteading”

23. Rachel Newman, “A Truth that Had to be Told: Uncovering the History of School Segregation in El Monte”

References

[1] Olga Gutiérrez, interviewed by Nick Juravich, January 8, 2015, http://www.semapeastofeast.com/items/show/17.

[2] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” iii.

[3] Gutiérrez, interviewed by Nick Juravich, January 8, 2015.

[4] Rubén Donato and Jarrod S. Hanson, “Legally White, Socially ‘Mexican’: The Politics of De Jure and De Facto School Segregation in the American Southwest,” Harvard Educational Review 82, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 210.

[5] Ibid., 213–214.

[6] Olga Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation in El Monte: The Lexington School,” M.A. Thesis, California State University Los Angeles, 1981, 14, and Appendix B, Letter from District Superintendent to the Board of Trustees of the El Monte School District, February 22, 1927.

[7] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” Appendix, D, Minutes of the Board of Trustees of El Monte School District, May 10, 1938, p. 5.

[8] Mario T. García, “Americans All: The Mexican American Generation and the Politics of Wartime Los Angeles, 1941-45,” Social Science Quarterly 65, no. 2 (1984): 282.

[9] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 24.

[10] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 23-24.

[11] Augustine Ramos, interviewed by Diane Conover and Anthony Estrada, in Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities, ed. Susan Sellman Obler, Whittier, California: Whittier Historical Society and Rio Hondo College, 1978, 85.

[12] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 16-17.

[13] García, “Americans All,” 283.

[14] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 18.

[15] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 20.

[16] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” appendix F, Minutes of the Board of Trustees of El Monte School District, April 30, 1945, p. 3.

[17] Donato and Hanson, “Legally White, Socially ‘Mexican,’” 214–217.

[18] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 21-22.

[19] For more about racism and public health in Los Angeles, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

[20] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 21.

[21] Lupe Ruiz, interviewed by Patty Barry and Andrea López, in Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities, 98.

[22] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 25.

[23] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 24.

[24] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 22.

[25] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 28.

[26] Donato and Hanson, “Legally White, Socially ‘Mexican,’” 218.

[27] Ibid., 220.

[28] United States Commission on Civil Rights, Mexican American Education Study, 6 vols. (Washington: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1971).

[29] In the EMESD, this meant that each school should have a Mexican-American population between 21.5 and 51.5 percent. Yet many school populations did not fall within this range, and the district had actually grown more “imbalanced” since the late 1960s after an “influx of Spanish-surnamed families” to the South El Monte. See Mike Castro, “13 Schools in El Monte Cited as Imbalanced,” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1971, p. SG1.

[30] Ernie Gutiérrez, interviewed by Daniel Morales, January 14, 2015. http://www.semapeastofeast.com/items/show/31

[31] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 26-27.

[32] Gutiérrez, “Analyzing Segregation,” 3.

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