The Presidents Day holiday weekend gives us all a chance to reflect on the kind of civic leadership we admire.
What one individual can accomplish.
For most Americans, the height of civic service is the presidency.
Yet it’s more often a local person that shows the way, provides an example.
Orange County has had Ramirez for more than 70 years but officialdom didn’t always seem ready to focus on him or the four other Latino families who successfully challenged school segregation in Orange County in 1945 and ended up changing America.
Ramirez, a labor leader from the El Modena neighborhood in Orange, first stood up for his children in 1944, along with four other families, opposing the idea of segregated “Mexican Schools.”
Ramirez grew up in El Modena but only got as far as the eighth grade. He later moved to Whittier with his wife, Josefina, and worked as a ranch foreman – enrolling his sons in regular elementary schools.
But when he moved back to his old neighborhood in Orange County in 1944, he was told his three sons would have to attend a segregated Mexican school.
Ramirez challenged that idea in court just as World War II was ending.
And he won.
His case was combined with suits from four other families and together they eventually won in 1947 a federal court case decision, now called Mendez, et. al vs. Westminster. That later served as the legal precedent for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that desegregated America’s schools in 1954, providing a cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement.
It fell to citizens like Ramirez, the well-recognized Gonzalo Mendez and three other Latino families to defend the U.S. Constitution against the El Modena School District, the Santa Ana City Schools, the Garden Grove Elementary School District of Orange County and the Westminster School District of Orange County.
They did it. They rose to the occasion.
“All children or persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, though Citizens of the United States of America shall be, have been and are now excluded from attending, using, enjoying and receiving the benefits of the education, health and recreation facilities of certain schools within their respective districts and systems but that said children are now and have been segregated and required to and must attend and use certain schools in said districts and systems, reserved for and attended solely and exclusively by children and persons of Mexican and Latin descent, while such other schools are maintained, attended and used exclusively by and for persons and children purportedly known as White or Anglo Saxon children,” wrote attorney David Marcus in the March 2, 1945, 8-page legal filing that started the case.
After winning, Ramirez went back to a quiet civilian life and raised 11 children. He died in Riverside at the age of 55 in 1966, about nine months before I was born.
For years, the role of the entire class action case in Americas’ desegregation was largely underplayed, especially in Orange County. However, recently, numerous Latino activists have worked to gain recognition for the monumental role these citizens played in their national story. OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Arellano, our unofficial county historian, back in 2009 focused his pen on the effort to recognize the role Ramirez played, along with other families in the effort.
Earlier this month, when I ran into El Modena resident Sam Rodriguez at the Voice of OC monthly open house, he urged me to attend the unveiling of a bust to Ramirez just outside the Santiago Canyon Community College library in Orange (named after him), insisting the experience would be inspiring.
“You need to get to know what Lorenzo Ramirez and these families did,” Rodriguez, a professor of Chicano Studies at Santiago Canyon College, told me. “People need to know.”
Walking into last week’s library event, I ran into Ramirez’s son, Mike, 61, the second-youngest of Ramirez’s children – who now lives in Riverside.
“To us, he was dad. He never brought what was happening back to the house…He never bad mouthed what was happening,” Ramirez told me, noting that his father – a leader at the Laborers Local 652 – wasn’t the type to raise his voice.
But he took action.
“You can’t fit in his shoes,” Ramirez said.
“We do stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Rancho Santiago Community College District President Claudia Alvarez, noting a long line of Latino elected leaders in Orange County, “all thanks to what happened in 1946.”
Trustee Arianna Barrios, whose own family has direct ties to the case, also celebrated Ramirez’s role not only as a civic leader of humble origins but as one of many strong brave fathers who stood up for their families.
The other fathers included Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez and Frank Palomino.
The quiet nature of Ramirez and the huge impact of his example, Barrios said, shows “anybody can do it.”
Robert Ruiz, a Santa Ana resident who is now Secretary Treasurer of Local 652 and a board member of Orange County’s fair board, told me he felt especially proud of Ramirez’s role saying it just underscores how the union movement and members like Ramirez impact their communities.
“It’s extra huge, not just for Latinos, but all of Orange County,” Ruiz said.
Ray Mendoza, who was the first Latino President of Local 652, and his wife, Toni, both donated the bust to help spread the word about the impact of Ramirez’s actions.
Yet so much of what Ramirez fought for remains in play.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Alvarez, presenting a passionate and compelling case, asking aloud about why supervisorial districts in Orange County are now set up to pit communities of color against each other (Vietnamese vs. Latino) for electoral success.
“How does that happen?” Alvarez asked.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer issued an open challenge to everyone saying the real issue confronting the nation today is “not just about access.”
It’s about “equal opportunity for success,” Spitzer said.
Yet the next time that a local community college student is frustrated, working several jobs and feeling like they can’t make it, Phyliss Ramirez Zepeda is glad they’ll see the statue of her dad, and ask themselves who was this man.
The answer, she hopes, will give them the fuel they need to keep pressing on.
It’s the same kind of fuel we should all soak up on a daily basis as free individuals.
Phyliss summed it up beautifully for the crowd gathered around her father’s bust in front of the library, “One person can create change and you can be that person.”