The Lemon Grove Incident:
How and Why Did It Come To Pass?
The 1930’s proved to be a time when racist policies and ideologies were common and part of everyday life in the United States. Segregation in schools was an unfortunate part of this era. In what was an unprecedented display of agency, the Mexican community of Lemon Grove, California (both immigrant and American-born Mexicans) made the decision to stand up against the unjust discriminatory practices of their local school board. The Mexican parents of Lemon Grove fought for the desegregation of their schools because they viewed themselves as Americans with rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and they knew that they were being unfairly deprived of these rights by the Anglo-American school board members.
The atmosphere surrounding the Lemon Grove Incident was not only local. Discrimination directed towards Mexicans occurred at the state and national levels of government as well. The economic pressures created by the Great Depression led to many Anglos becoming concerned with the “Mexican problem”, scapegoating Mexicans for the lack of availability of employment. To address this issue, the California Senate proposed a bill that would make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to seek employment or engage in business, making it a misdemeanor offense for an American citizen to have a business partner who was an “alien.” Legislation would also prevent aliens from working on public works projects. California law allowed for separate schools for Blacks, Native Americans and Asians. In an organized effort to segregate Mexicans from Anglos, January 19, 1931 saw Assemblyman George R. Bliss introduce a bill, which would attempt to reclassify Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as Indian, changing their official status from that of Caucasian. On January 6, 1931, Secretary of Labor William N. Doak would request funds from Congress in an effort to deport illegal immigrants residing in the country. In all, around half a million Mexicans and American-born descendants of Mexican background would be sent to Mexico via deportation.
Enter Lemon Grove, California, a rural town with fertile soil, growing lemons and oranges as its primary crops. The city grew around the railroad tracks, which connected it to the rest of the country. Like most California communities with an ethnically diverse population, Lemon Grove became residentially segregated as new arrivals moved into concentrated areas and formed ethnocentric neighborhoods. Growing off of Olive Street, the Mexican Barrio in Lemon Grove was the direct result of chain immigration as settlers and their relatives and friends emigrated from Baja California, first fleeing the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and later seeking employment during the 1920’s. Mexican workers contributed significantly to the city’s industries, primarily by providing manual labor. They worked in the rock quarry, the packinghouses and the citrus orchards. Despite their positive contributions, Mexican families would still be treated with contempt and discriminated against on a local level.
On July 23, 1930, the Lemon Grove School Board met at the request of the local Parent/Teacher Association (PTA), together with a representative of the Chamber of Commerce to pass a resolution to segregate Mexican students from Anglo-American students. At the time, the Golden Avenue School (Lemon Grove’s only elementary school) was overcrowded, having a little less than 200 students enrolled. Referring to the overcrowding as “severe”, the school board’s concerns were that the swollen student body was causing “emergency” problems such as overflowing toilets and a “deterioration of sanitation and morals” due to the presence of Mexican students. Members of the school board also cited how Mexican students who were not proficient in English were slowing down the pace of the curriculum at the expense of the other students.
The Chamber of Commerce had invested heavily in advertisements and publicity in an effort to boost Lemon Grove’s reputation and attract desirable new residents and investors. They insisted that Lemon Grove needed to segregate students in order to become a successful city by providing whites with the security of separate public schools for their children. Following a typical racist view which was predominant at the time, the argument was made that because the Mexicans “live together, work together and have their own parties”, they would welcome the idea of segregation in schools. Every effort was being made to establish the inferiority of Mexicans to their Anglo counterparts.
Principal Jerome T. Green attempted to persuade the school board to notify parents before opening the new school building, which was actually nothing more than a renovated barn turned into two classrooms. Two teachers, one a senior faculty member (Mrs. Catherine Elliot, who was soon to retire) and a teacher with only one year’s experience, were to teach eight grades between them in the new school. Principal Green’s efforts were undermined, however, and the school was opened without any prior notification to the parents. The Lemon Grove School board had decided to avoid committing their decision to writing, as they feared it would indeed serve to anger the parents of the students.
On the first day the new school was opened, the Mexican children were separated from the Anglo children and instructed to attend the new school. Such was the state of the Olive Street School that it was nicknamed “La Caballeriza”, which translates from Spanish to a barn or stable. No discernment was made for Mexican children who were born in the United States or who spoke English fluently. Later that night, after the children informed the parents of what had occurred, a meeting was held in the Mexican community and the Neighborhood Association of Lemon Grove (NALG) was founded.
The question of why the Mexican and Mexican-American parents of the Lemon Grove community decided to stand up for their children’s rights, at a time when they were facing intense discrimination, is a sophisticated and complex one. The phenomena of second-generation acculturation can help to provide an answer. Those Mexican immigrants who had grown up in the United States as well as those Mexican-American children, who grew up speaking English, were more politically attuned to their civil rights. They viewed themselves as Americans as well as Mexicans and expected more from American society than their parents had, and “as a result, the 1930’s saw an upsurge in civil rights activism”. These were Americans who were actively seeking just treatment, rather than remain silent victims. This trend would grow as second-generation Mexican Americans combined the struggle for equality in education with that of workers’ rights.
Inferior schools and teachers were a part of the process of oppressing Mexican Americans. Language and cultural differences were emphasized and used as a basis for discrimination in both social and institutional settings. “Mexican schools were notoriously shabby, overcrowded, poorly staffed, and underfinanced.” The Lemon Grove Incident would become the first successful challenge to the inferiority of these types of schools.
While most of the parents felt empowered by their value to the city of Lemon Grove as workers and citizens, some of them were concerned that they would be fired by their Anglo employers and replaced by the “Okies”. The hard economic times presented a genuine financial threat to them. The association moved forward with their decision to keep their children home from school until the segregation was ended. The desire for equal treatment under the law was a major factor in the parents’ decision to oppose the school board’s actions. According to California law, there was no legal precedent to segregate Mexicans from Anglos in schools. The school board was effectively breaking the law by requiring Mexican students to attend their own school based on the concept of race. The Mexican parents of Lemon Grove did not want their children sent to a second-rate school, which they knew, would be underfunded and under-staffed.
Some of the parents were threatened with deportation and loss of welfare benefits (if applicable). In fact, David Ruiz’s family, including five of his brothers who were all born in the United States, were deported as a result of his mother’s refusal to send them to the Olive Street school. As a result of these strong-arm tactics, the Lemon Grove parents went to the Mexican Consulate for help. Jess Gonzalez’s father was a friend of an American attorney who worked at the Mexican Consulate named Fred C. Noon. Battling the media’s portrayal of them as “parents on strike”, the NALG convinced Consul Enrique Ferreira to lend them the legal assistance of Mr. Noon in support of their cause. Consul Ferreira agreed to assist the NALG because the Mexican government was concerned with the quality of education of both Mexican-born and Mexican-American children within the United States, in light of the widespread prejudice against and scapegoating of ethnically Mexican people.
Prior to the court hearing to determine the status of the Lemon Grove segregation, Andy Anderson, chairman of the Lemon Grove School Board, in a blatant attempt to denigrate the parents of the NALG, told a journalist that he believed that “other Mexicans, possibly headquartered in Mexico itself”, were instructing the Mexican parents of Lemon Grove to act. In fact, the Lemon Grove Mexican community was acting autonomously. While some members were Mexican immigrants, others were Americans of Mexican descent simply asserting themselves as Americans and demanding recognition of their civil rights.
On July 23, 1930, many details were revealed regarding the Lemon Grove case in the court hearing. Students who were already fluent in English, born in the United States and who did not speak any Spanish at all had been assigned to the Olive Street School, debunking the claim that they needed to be “Americanized”. The School Board’s claims that crossing the railroad tracks to get to school was a safety hazard was also proven to be manufactured, as students both white and Mexican had to cross the tracks to get to either school. Finally, a teacher admitted that white students who were falling behind in their studies were not being reassigned to the Olive Street School for remedial instruction. The presiding Judge Claude Chambers returned with the decision to end the Lemon Grove segregation based on the fact that Mexicans were considered to be of the Caucasian race, which the laws of the United States did not allow to be segregated from Anglo students, who are also Caucasian. The Mexican children who needed to learn English would benefit from the presence of American children, becoming Americanized through exposure to them.
Although the Mexican families of the Lemon Grove community had won their battle against segregation in their local schools, California continued to allow the segregation of Asians, Negroes and Native Americans. Outside of Lemon Grove, other cases of segregation occurred against Mexican students. Robert Alvarez, son of Roberto Alvarez, stated, “Lot of folks say they won the case because they were white. They won because they stood up and fought for their rights.” Alvarez went on to emphasize that “separate but equal” was a part of the Southwest and in his opinion, the entire United States.
In the battle against school segregation, the Lemon Grove case set a precedent that would assist in future successes. Mendez v. Westminster was heard on February 18, 1946. The outcome ended official sanction of school segregation of Mexicans and those of Latin descent in the entire state of California, on the basis that California law did not provide for segregation of Mexicans or Latinos. The Anderson Bill was then signed into law on June 14, 1947. The last of California’s school segregation laws, Codes 8003 and 8004 of the California Education Code were thus repealed. Astonishingly, segregation in California continued to be practiced unofficially until the 1980’s. Following Brown v. Bd. of Ed II (1955), Crawford v. Los Angeles Board of Ed in 1963 (settled in 1982) established that the state was indeed able to require the bussing in [of students] as a reliable means in order to desegregate schools, helping to prevent segregation via district lines.
Through the Lemon Grove Incident we see that institutional discrimination was not limited to the old South. California and other southwestern states used discriminatory “separate but equal” practices as well. The Mexican parents of Lemon Grove were aware of the law and of their rights as Americans. They stood up and fought against injustice. The Lemon Grove case is a turning point in California’s battle against racial discrimination and is an important part of the fabric of today’s society.