Slingshot: How the 1918 Pandemic Segregated Santa Ana's Schools
Updated: Jan 13
Orange County posted 3,445 coronavirus cases on Saturday, a pandemic record. Since the beginning, Santa Ana's Latino community has borne the brunt of Covid-19, provoking many questions about health, racism and income inequality.
Tragically, it's a familiar tale.
A century ago, the 1918 influenza pandemic rampaged through OC in the fall with Mexicans suffering from both the disease and discrimination. Santa Ana remained one of the last big Southern California cities to shutdown in October. But when it did, the city turned to a familiar scapegoat and found an opportunity to segregate its shuttered schools once deemed safe to reopen.
On Nov. 5, the Santa Ana Board of Health convened to address a pandemic that they described as having shown no real signs of improvement. Even if physicians signaled support for reopening schools, not enough parents would send their children to class anyway.
The problem according to Dr. J.I. Clark, Santa Ana's city health officer? Sick Mexicans.
"I ask for the cooperation of the county and city for the protection of both," Clark was quoted in the Santa Ana Register. "Since Nov. 1, ninety-five cases have been reported inside the city, mostly Mexicans. We must control the migration of the Mexicans."
Clark didn't flinch in prescribing a heavy-handed approach to the so-called "Delhi-Dyer situation." He called for the area to be strictly quarantined and advocated for the addition of two extra patrolmen in the city for the purpose of stopping Mexicans from spreading the disease.
A city health inspector complained that Mexicans paid quarantines no mind and refused to report cases. The only sliver of a reprieve for the maligned community during the meeting came from a physician who served on a city advisory committee.
As evidenced by his humanistic plea, racist physicians passed on treating ailing Mexicans during the pandemic.
"The Mexican is a human being," said Dr. Charles Dexter Ball, "and is entitled to the consideration of every physician. If it were not for the fact that a few doctors here have taken those cases, though others have refused them, they would have been left to die like dogs."
Clark gained the two health officers with police powers he desired by meeting's end; the three-week old Santa Ana shutdown remained intact.
A week later, the Board of Education felt confident enough to reopen Santa Ana schools after accepting recommendations made by Clark, with the segregation of Mexican students being chief among them. The health officer also proposed inspections of Mexican households by school nurses to determine whether children had influenza or not.
The board repurposed a building on Church Street (now Civic Center Drive) for Mexican classes. Clark boosted the call for school segregation by presenting a petition signed by many residents; a PTA delegation from various grammar schools also demanded that white sixth grade students be transferred away from Washington School so that it could fully function as a Mexican school. The proposal fell short on account of the superintendent declaring that not enough classrooms were available to make such a switch.
On Nov. 18, classes resumed after having been closed for a month. White students showed up, but Mexican children largely stayed home, especially at Washington where teachers called it an early day.
"It is very likely that a vast majority of the Mexicans were not aware of the re-opening this morning," the Register reasoned without talking to any Mexicans. "Few of them read the daily papers and probably will not learn of the resumption of school until it is passed by word of mouth."
The newspaper reported that teachers were prepared to take every precaution to prevent the spread of the disease by Mexican school children. Perhaps poor outreach to Mexican communities was unofficially part of the plan?
Either way, the segregation of Mexican students during the pandemic was considered a temporary measure to be finalized by a future board. The clamor for such existed within Santa Ana's white majority a few months prior to the school shutdowns.
The board had originally sought to purchase land to build a permanent Mexican school near East Washington and Logan streets for the following school year but it proved too costly. In August, Lincoln School's PTA protested an alternative plan by the board to turn its site into a temporarily segregated one for Mexican pupils.
Trustees wanted to repurpose a shack at Lincoln for the instruction of first, second and, possibly, third grade classes. The board also pondered having separate recesses for white and Mexican students. The PTA's protest resolution expressed concern that once modified, Lincoln would eventually become a permanent Mexican school. The PTA president complained of the "Mexican problem" of Spanish-speaking students dragging down the learning environment of their children.
After the pandemic began to subside, the board finally purchased two sites in May 1919 for future Mexican schools--one at Stafford and Logan streets, the other at Second and Santa Fe streets. By the time the 1919-1920 school year arrived, Santa Ana's white schools started on Sept. 10; Mexican schools already fell behind by beginning classes almost a month later on Oct. 1.
The pestilence of the pandemic ended but the scourge of segregation lingered on for decades until Mendez, et al vs. Westminster, et al delivered it a legal blow in Santa Ana and beyond.
- Gabriel San Román
Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
Long before Mickey's Christmas Carol had Disney adapting Dickens in 1983, another animated short delivered a mouse-eared moral tale for the holidays. Debuting on Dec. 17, 1932, Mickey's Good Deed arrived in the midst of the Great Depression. The short begins with a homeless Mickey Mouse playing the cello with Pluto howling along. People pass by and jingle his donation cup with deposits. Only, a hungry Mickey later discovers that he can't buy food from a restaurant as the cup is filled with nails, not coins. Disappointed, the duo nevertheless plays on. When outside a rich family's home, a spoiled brat catches sight of Pluto and demands the dog as a Christmas present. Mickey refuses to sell but later has a change of heart after happening upon a poor cat family with no Christmas presents.
His good deed brings good cheer.
Such Christmastime cartoons and the messages they bring haven't been lost on Disney workers. Right before the start of the living wage campaign in Anaheim, unions protested the curtailment of Christmas perks at the park for workers with a flyer using an image from Mickey's Christmas Carol.
Amid a devastating pandemic, Mickey's Good Deed deserves a live-action remake in the real world. So far, the Cast Member Pantry is doing a good job channeling its spirit.
Lead photo: Arthur Palomino (3rd row, 2nd from left) at the Fremont Mexican School in Santa Ana. Arthur's father, Frank, was one of the plaintiffs in the Mendez, et al v. Westminster, et al case.
Photo courtesy Chapman University's Mendez, et al v. Westminster, et al Archive at the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives.