Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Sam Romero can tell you a lot about civic street fighting. 

“I’ve been in a lot of fights,” recalled the 87-year old legendary Santa Ana civic activist and former Marine last week just before we connected over a Voice of OC video town hall with the environmental news nonprofit, Grist, discussing an effort Romero’s involved with studying lead contamination in Santa Ana neighborhoods. 

I first met Romero while walking the beat and bumping into him at his Catholic gift shop on Main Street a decade ago. He and others successfully challenged how Santa Ana city leaders wanted to implement a local business improvement district for the downtown. 

During that fight, Sam was a strong voice for the small shop owner, his usual place advocating for the individual resident up against the government machine. 

“I hate injustice,” Sam says often. 

Yet those kinds of fights take strong legs. 

“You gotta be persistent,” added Romero — pivoting abruptly last week during our conversation about lead in Santa Ana to tell me about another injustice he’s determined to change.

This time it’s an intimately personal crusade for the memory of his daughter, Lydia – a pioneer in Santa Ana’s early adoption of Spanish immersion education.

He wants the school named after Lydia to carry her first name.

“To see that name,” Sam said, his voice cracking a bit as he referenced the signs outside Romero-Cruz Academy “without her … I’m fighting that too.”

Sal Flores arrives at the 2021 Logan Barrio reunion taking place in Chepa’s Park in Santa Ana Saturday, Sept 25, 2021.

Lydia died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in April 1996 at the age of 35 and four years later, a host of dignitaries from across the county gathered at a small elementary school on Santa Ana Boulevard and named a school after her – the Lydia Romero Cruz Elementary School. 

“Lydia knew that it’s OK to be Latina, to speak Spanish as well as English,” said then-congresswoman Loretta Sanchez at the ceremony celebrating the renaming. 

At the time of the school’s naming, Sam told reporters that as a kid who attended segregated schools in Santa Ana during the 40s and 50s, it felt unreal to see one named after his daughter. 

“Now here is a school being named for my daughter,” he said. “I don’t know any huge words, words to describe how I feel.”

Yet flash forward about 20 years, the elementary school ended up getting merged with the troubled Spurgeon Intermediate in 2019, creating a dual-immersion pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. 

Now, it’s the Romero Cruz Academy.

At the time, Sam and others like Santa Ana Unified School District Board Member John Palacio both said they understood the Academy would carry Lydia’s name.

If not, Sam said he would have never agreed to the merger.

There was also blowback from local historians about taking the family name, Spurgeon – named after the founders of Santa Ana – off the school and the lack of dialogue around the process. 

Now, when I asked school district officials about the status of the school – as I promised Sam I would do as a member of the local press corps — I got a strange mix of different stories. 

I found it amazing that in just a few short years there could be so much confusion about how a school got its name.

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When asked about the background of the naming process, district spokesman Fermin Leal replied that “when the schools merged at the old Spurgeon campus, the faculty and parents were asked for naming recommendations. Since they were losing and Spurgeon and Romero Cruz names, it was through collaboration that they came up with Romero Cruz Academy. They specifically wanted the acronym RCA.”

Indeed, the April 2019 school board meeting agenda forwarded to me by Leal does note the school name change to Romero-Cruz Academy.

Yet that’s not what Sam understood.

“They never told me they were going to drop her name,” Sam told me this past week. 

For him, it’s vitally important that a woman’s first name be on the school instead of only a surname because he hopes Lydia’s memory offers encouragement and inspiration for young women attending the school, who might see themselves in her.  

A student walks by the front of the Romero-Cruz Academy in Santa Ana on Jan 20, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Palacio, who calls the episode “an honest mistake,” said, “I didn’t realize it until he made it clear they didn’t add Lydia’s name to it.”

During the school board’s December board meeting, Palacio brought the issue back up, publicly calling on district staff to address the issue. 

Yet it’s not clear what kind of progress has been made. 

According to the school district policy forwarded by Leal, it seems the district would have to essentially reconvene its outreach program – largely getting parents and residents involved for community feedback and getting formal proposals going in staff committees.

From looking over the different regulatory steps involved, I’d estimate it should take about three months to get to a school board vote on a name change. 

Now, Leal indicated the district’s new Superintendent Jerry Almendarez has been working with the family to bring Lydia back.

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“The superintendent has been working with the family to add the name “Lydia” back to the school,” Leal texted Monday, adding that “changing the name of a school, even if just adding a first name, must go through a process that does take some time. But the District is currently following these steps with the goal of adding ‘Lydia’ to the school.”

Yet if the superintendent is working with the family, why is the family publicly frustrated at the lack of any updates?

Leal also notes that this is a school district heavily impacted by COVID.

“The past two years, the district’s top priority has been to ensure a continuity of learning and maintaining safe and healthy schools,” he said, adding, “During the past two years, other operations not directly linked to health and safety have been impacted in a variety of ways.”

Yet another school board member, Valerie Amezcua, said Sam has also reached out to her on the issue going back as far as a year.

She’s wondering whether the top executives are doing their homework.

“The superintendent has been asked, numerous times,” Amezcua said, adding, “It’s disrespectful to a community leader and his family and the legacy they carry and how much they have given back to the community.”

“It’s s very simple process,” she said. “It shouldn’t take two years.”

The naming issue is likely to come up at tonight’s local school board meeting, which starts at 6 pm. and can be seen here.  

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