The Unheralded History of the Lemon Grove Desegregation Case

By Madrid, E. Michael | Multicultural Education, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Unheralded History of the Lemon Grove Desegregation Case


Madrid, E. Michael, Multicultural Education


"Some Mexicans are very bright, but you cannot compare their brightest with the average white children."

-A superintendent of schools circa 1940

Mexican School Desegregation: A Different Racial Paradigm

An Unheralded Event

In 1931, the Southern California community of Lemon Grove served as the unlikely stage for a dramatic and significant civil rights court case. A group of courageous Mexican and Mexican-American parents and their children won a major victory in the battle against school segregation and the perfidious notion of separate but equal facilities.

The case, now commonly referred to as the Lemon Grove Incident, was the nation's first recognized court-ordered school desegregation case. The Lemon Grove parents' efforts and legal struggles involved more than 70 children of Mexican descent who were summarily directed by their school principal to attend a hastily constructed, two-room segregated school, the "caballeriza," the barn, which was situated in the "Mexican side of town."

The Lemon Grove case is not well known and one could surmise that its most distinguishing characteristic is its obscurity. Similar to the post World War II landmark Méndez v. Westminster case, the Lemon Grove matter could be deemed an item of "neglected" history not only because of the public's ignorance of it, but also because of its absence from the public school curriculum (Madrid, 2007, p. 29).

As with Lemon Grove and Mendez, many important historical events pertaining to the Mexican-American experience are not taught in the public schools. For example, there were approximately 100 school desegregation and education-related cases that were heard during the 19th century (Bowman, 2001, p. 9), many of which pertained to Mexican-American civil rights and social justice, yet there is little mention of them in the history texts.

Many, if not most of the better known desegregation and civil rights issues have emerged from the Black experience. That is, events related to the Black civil rights movement generally are well known and rightfully are considered important aspects of U.S. history. In stark contrast to Black civil rights issues, many incidents pertaining to the Mexican-American struggle are neither familiar nor renowned. Why?

A Brown/White Paradigm

Matters of civil rights and school desegregation traditionally have been perceived within a Black/White context or paradigm, which is problematic because it tends to marginalize the history of intolerance and bigotry leveled at Latinos (Bowman, 2001, p.15). Unlike African- Americans, Latinos were not methodically enslaved. Blacks are presumed to be bona fide U.S. citizens, yet Mexican-Americans frequently are perceived within an immigrant context because of their historical, linguistic, and cultural ties with Mexico (Rosales, 2000, p. 22).

People of Mexican descent frequently are viewed as foreigners, and the perception of the Mexican-American's foreignness is, in part, attributable to the great number of Latinos who are immigrants. The notion of foreignness often is intensified due to language issues, e.g., Spanish speakers who need to learn English or need to improve their English. Furthermore, the notion of foreignness is a prominent characteristic of the English-only movement as reflected in its attacks on bilingual education, which are indicative of the enmity directed at those who speak Spanish (Bowman, 2001, p.13).

People of Mexican descent frequently have been categorized as "White," although there have been many occasions when politicians sought to categorize them as "Indian." Yet the practice of classifying Mexican-Americans as "White" may have fostered the illusion that they have not been targets of discrimination and, indeed, have benefited as members of the dominant culture. Such is not the case. As Bowman (2001, p.15) indicates, "These interpretations . . . threaten Latinos' pursuit of equality by assuming the existence of a level playing field where none exists. …

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