When I arrived at Orange Intermediate School, I met Mexicans. They were Catholic, not Protestant, and they wore different clothing. They all spoke at least some English; the girls usually more than the boys.
The boys didn’t want to be there; the girls did. It was 1952, and all the girls wore dresses. We used to eyeball the girls’ legs as they climbed the outside steel stairs up to the second-floor classrooms. I remember Suzie—short, waddly, conversational, a friend of everybody—who would act as mediator between us and some of the girls we liked.
In social studies class, when Al Lopez wasn’t on task, Mr. Hardesty would playfully throw erasers at him. One day Al was absent, and Mr. Hardesty told us, “You know, Al has an IQ of about 70.” We believed him. I guess he wanted us to be friendlier to Al. It never occurred to me to ask Al if he was legal or not.
Al was thin, stood about 5’8”, had dark brown skin, and long, gelled, slicked-back jet-black hair. He and I competed for the forward position on the Orange Intermediate basketball team. He was a ferocious dribbler, elbowing and penetrating the defense, but I was a better shot. I won the spot, but later, Al eclipsed me. One day when I called him a “brain” (a common middle school epithet), he cursed me out in Spanish and almost hit me. After that I tried to avoid him.
My first day at intermediate school, “Creech,” a kid that seemed about seven feet tall, pinned a sign to my back that said, “I am the scum of the earth.” He told me, “Keep that on all day, kid, or I’ll beat you up this afternoon.” I kept it on. Orange Intermediate was so much bigger than my Center Street elementary because several other elementary schools fed into it, including Cypress Street and Kilefer, where the Mexicans went to school.
The playground, a vast macadam tarmac, stretched from the chain link fence along Sycamore Street to the bicycle stands and woodshop to the south, and from the school buildings on the east side to the dirt running track on the west side. We played softball here after lunch, but some of the guys dominated the games, so a few of us changed to playing handball against the back of the school building, an act which resulted in Mr. Elmore taking us to the woodshop for a paddling.
They told us we couldn’t leave the playground during the school day, but across Sycamore Street was a tiny Mexican take-out. I found a breach in the chain link fence where I could sneak over and buy a couple of tamales for lunch.
During breaks, we would stand around on the playground in clumps, talking. The Anglo boys wore jeans with the red Levi tag, or khaki pants with a little cloth buckle in the back. I could afford neither; I just wore generic pants. The Mexican boys stood in separate clumps. Most of their families were poor. They settled here because Orange County needed their fathers to pick oranges. They wore generic jeans, or just dark slacks. I was more fearful of the eighth-grade Anglos like Creech than I was of the Mexicans. You could sort of avoid the Mexicans.
Segregation was illegal in the schools, but the town was still pretty segregated. Some of my Mexican friends lived in homes humbler than my own, and I noticed that many of them wore gold pendants of the Virgin Mary. In elementary school, they had attended Holy Family Catholic school on Glassell Street and we watched them walking home in their blue and white uniforms. I wondered, how did they afford to pay for private school? Or did the school let them go free? I think now that this excellent early schooling helped them survive and thrive in an Anglo culture. The Catholic kids always seemed to be ahead of us in their reading books.
We called the guys Pachucos (as in El Pachuco zoot suits), chongos (referring to a male hair bun), or chingos (sexual meaning), but at the time I didn’t know the meaning of any of these labels. Or we would just call them Mexicans. The word Chicano (roughly, American-born but of Mexican heritage) hadn’t come along yet. Playground Spanish
We all knew some Spanish words (hombre, grande), and several bastardized words—savvy (from sabe; “to know”), calaboose (from calabozo; “jail”), sankero (from zanjero; “irrigation specialist”). And I learned a few dirty words —hijo de chingada, carajo, and the exquisite pendejo (referring to the intimate parts of a bull cow). Mexican cuss words were better than any we had in English.
We would stereotype the Mexicans—some of the stereotypes were true. Young Mexican men were known for driving bulky cars, like Buicks or Oldsmobiles, perpetually primer-spotted and lowered to three inches off the pavement. They would drive around the Orange plaza circle at about two miles an hour. They were often bare-chested to show off their crucifix necklaces, and you could just see their eyes above the top of the door sill.
I don’t remember any Anglo-Mexican fights when I was in middle school. But Cesar would give us Monday reports on the weekend fights up where he lived in El Modena. El Modena was once a separate town, but later incorporated into Orange. It had a Catholic, Spanish-speaking church, but no intermediate school, so they came down to ours. He talked about the gangs locked in mortal combat, lashing each other with chains and bashing each other with clubs. But we never saw any wounds or read any newspaper reports. Cesar had a great imagination. We listened, transfixed.
The bracero program brought Mexicans like Cesar’s family in from Mexico and put them in barbed-wire camps. The men would ride out to our family’s orange orchard sitting on wooden benches inside canvas-covered trucks. They cooked their burritos over little campfires they built in the orange grove. As a five-year-old, I learned my first Spanish words from these men, and also learned the hard way not to repeat any of them to my mother.
Many of the Mexicans stayed, and in the 1950s most lived west and north of the packing house. The Santiago Orange Growers Association organized in 1893, and its packing house, located at Cypress and Palm Streets, was built during WWI. At its peak, the facility packed over 800,000 boxes of oranges in a single season.
In the 1940s Orange County had 75,000 acres of Valencia orange groves, 5,000 growers, 51 packing houses, and tens of thousands of Mexican pickers and packing house workers.
Up through the 1940s, Mexicans in Orange County routinely suffered discrimination. “White space” was marked out in parks, hotels, dance halls, stores, and even barbershops. Defense attorney Joel Ogle argued for segregated schools, invoking Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 Supreme Court decision that legalized “separate but equal” schools. The “equal” part was a farce; school districts shunted Mexicans to their own segregated schools and emphasized more manual, agricultural skills, rather than more academic subjects. Unless they had whiter skin, their kids could not go to the white schools; they had to go to the colonia school, an inferior school on undesirable land.
On March 2, 1945, five Mexican American families filed a class action suit against the Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modena and Santa Ana school districts. Orange wasn’t included because their schools were already integrated. Finally, the school districts relented and gave Mexicans equal access to all schools. So I always went to school with Mexicans.
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When we went to high school, Al Lopez continued playing basketball, but sort of disappeared after a year or so. The summer after I graduated I accidently met Al—in the Santa Ana jail. Our church had made up a team for jail visiting, and we were singing and speaking to a group of faceless men. One of them called me over and said, “Hey, this guy here knows you.” There was Al. He explained he was in for driving without a license. Today, I lament I didn’t pay his $30 bail.
I didn’t realize it until years later that my besetting sin was pride—against all available evidence, I thought I was better than other people. That included the Mexicans, and Al.
In 2009 I returned for my 50th Orange High School reunion. Al wasn’t there. My friend Cesar told me he had died many years before. Peace to his memory. Al, please forgive me for not treating you like a real person.