La Verne Magazine
Spring 1997

"The Latino Community in La Verne: Struggle, Progress and Success"


Segregation in the 1940s:
'The Train Tracks Divided the World'

by Christopher Braunstein
photography by Michael P. Bailey

 



Standing tall in the lives of his students as principal of Candelario J. Mendoza School in Pomona, Richard Rodriguez presides over an entirely different curriculum than the one he experienced as a student at Lincoln Elementary School.

Imagine being in elementary school today. Children of all ethnicities and backgrounds play together in the same schoolyard, sit next to one another at lunchtime and in the classroom.

Now, imagine a town where children of different cultures were not, in most cases, allowed to attend the same school together. It was a town where Latino children were segregated from non-Latino children-forced to attend a school where cultural pride was almost nonexistent, and where speaking your parents' language was reason enough to be sent to see the principal.

Now, try to imagine this segregation occurring in La Verne.

It did.

This particular story is of two schools that existed during the 1940s era. One was Lincoln School. The other, Palomares School.

According to the school boundaries, all families who lived north of the railroad tracks sent their children to Lincoln School, while all those who lived south of the tracks sent their children to Palomares School.

Palomares stood on the southwest corner of what is now Arrow Highway and A Street. It was, for all intents and purposes, a "Latinos only" school. This was the school where all those who resided in the La Verne Barrio were educated.

Yet, the students in Palomares School were not just learning what we commonly refer to as the "Three R's": reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. They were learning about a fourth "R": Racism.

Across the tracks stood Lincoln School. Its students, with the exception of a very few, were Caucasian. They were not exposed to the hard life lessons the students in Palomares were learning. As far as many at Lincoln School were concerned, the students at Palomares simply did not exist.

In 1947, La Verne residents saw the integration of the schools take place, and, for better or for worse in some people's eyes, all the children of La Verne now play together on the same playground.

Neither school is standing today. A factory specializing in the manufacturing of plastics now resides where Palomares once was. Lincoln School's old area is now occupied by J. Marion Roynon Elementary School. Roynon, the school's namesake, served as superintendent of La Verne Schools from 1945 until 1958. It was during his tenure as superintendent that Roynon oversaw the integration of La Verne's schools.

The buildings may no longer exist, but the stories of what went on within the walls of both schools linger on.

These are the stories of those people, students and instructors of Palomares and Lincoln Schools, who survived the changes of the times. It is through their eyes that one sees another aspect of La Verne -- a darker era none hope to repeat.

Richard Rodriguez: "The Outsider"

"The train tracks divided the world."

The tracks that Richard Rodriguez speaks of run parallel to Arrow Highway. They were used as the dividing line to determine whether students went to either Palomares School or Lincoln School.

Rodriguez was one of approximately three Latino families who lived north of the tracks and studied at Lincoln School.

It would seem that being one of just a few Latinos in a predominately "white school" would set up a myriad of problems for Rodriguez, as well as for the several other Latino students enrolled in the school. However, this was not the case.

"A day for me at Lincoln was like a day for everyone else," says Rodriguez, as he leans back in his chair. "I didn't feel like a 'Mexican kid' or anything like that. I felt like all of the other kids."

Then, the fateful day arrived. Palomares was shut down, and all of the students who were enrolled in Palomares School were transferred to Lincoln School.

This caused a great deal of change in the life of Rodriguez, who was forced to examine issues that he had never faced. Issues of race, equality and acceptance suddenly dropped into his lap after the number of Latino students rose on the Lincoln School campus.

The problem that existed for Rodriguez was not a simple one. In fact, race relations had never been an issue that Rodriguez considered before.

To most, it would seem obvious that the first impulse would be for Rodriguez to welcome those who shared his ethnicity into his school, eager to share the playground with those he could not share it with before. Was this the case? "No," says Rodriguez. "Because I wasn't one of them. To me, they were the outsiders coming into my territory."

Rodriguez explains that as a student at Lincoln, race was never an issue for him. His brothers and sisters had been enrolled there for years before he arrived, never experiencing any racial problems. This, according to Rodriguez, "set the pace." Rodriguez's siblings had always done well in school, therefore leaving teachers with a favorable impression of the Rodriguez family.

Rodriguez thought it was only natural for him to dislike the new students, but not because of their ethnic background. It was simply because the children were new.

"It wasn't a race thing," he says.

This would be Rodriguez's first bitter taste of prejudice. Only, it would come from the least likely source-his own race.

"I hadn't felt any kind of prejudice at Lincoln before," he says. "The quote, unquote 'Mexican kids' came, and then they started ragging on me quite a bit.

"It was because I couldn't speak Spanish. They would call me 'Gavacho con culo prieto' which translated to 'Anglo with a brown ass.' "

Rodriguez eventually realized that to the new children in school, the real "outsider" was him. Knowing this, Rodriguez took it upon himself to get to know the new children.

"It took me a little while to kind of get in with them. I just tried to hang out with them more; just being in the same groups as them." Rodriguez takes a short pause. "I felt like I had to be a part of two cultures. To me, it was like balancing on a fence."

Rodriguez is thankful for the integration of the two schools. "It got me more in touch with my culture and my background. I discovered how well I really had it."

Today, Rodriguez serves as principal of Candelario J. Mendoza School in Pomona. He spends much of his time overseeing a school-wide program geared to transition Spanish-speaking children into an English-speaking curriculum. It is a program Rodriguez is proud of, one that he hopes will keep today's children from feeling like "outsiders" in a school system where all should be equal.

Pete Morales and Angel Castellano: "Crime and Punishment"

The train tracks figure prominently in the mind of Pete Morales as he reflects back on his years at Palomares School.

"Do you know what they told us was the reason we couldn't go to Lincoln? Because [school administrators] were afraid that if we had to go to Lincoln, and we had to cross the train tracks to go to school, then we might get hit by a train."

Morales raises his eyebrows and asks in disbelief, "Can you believe that?

"They used to let us walk to Lincoln School to go use the workshop, cause we had nothing [at Palomares]. Then, it didn't matter if the train ran over us!"

This is just one of a string of remembrances that surfaces when Morales and Angel Castellano discuss the racial inequalities they experienced as students of both Palomares and Lincoln Schools. Both men were enrolled in Palomares before the integration into Lincoln took place.

Morales continues, "When they'd let us use the workshop at Lincoln, the minute we walked in the school ground-now this is the way these kids were brought up-we'd hear, 'Here come the dirty Mexicans! Here come the dirty Mexicans!' There weren't that many of us, so everybody paired off and then started fighting. "

These fights resulted in that most frightening of events in elementary school: visiting the principal's office. Yet, visiting the office in Lincoln School during this era was frightening for more reasons than one.

"They'd take us in the office," recalls Morales. "And, they used-and I ain't kidding you-a paddle. That's what they used on us. They brought in the gardener and a couple of teachers, slammed you down [on the table], stuck your butt out there and gave you a two-handed smack.

"Afterwards, we would climb up to the top of the door and look in to see how they were punishing the other kids. The teacher got the kids by the hand and went like this with a ruler," Morales says, motioning as if to slap something down.

"This was the difference. What was good for the goose was not good for the gander.

"If I hadn't seen this, I wouldn't have felt so bad. I'm thinking they're going to get punished just like me."

Castellano, who is four years younger than Morales, was also a victim of the system of punishment in school.

In Palomares, the standing rule was that only English was allowed to be spoken in school. If a student was heard speaking Spanish once, it garnered a warning. Being caught a second time resulted in a paddling as well.

In actuality, paddling during this time was the discipline method of choice. It was a form of punishment used quite often in the schools-one that Castellano and his fellow students experienced numerous times.

"I remember that as soon as we were heard speaking Spanish, we were sent to [the principal]. He was a tall, bald man. When we went to see him, we just lifted our pant legs, and he would swat the backs of both of our legs.

"At P.E., we would lift our pants and show our legs. We called it having 'pink legs.' We'd see each other and say, 'Oh, you went to see [the principal] today.'"

Inequality also reigned in how the children were taught at both schools.

"They didn't care about us," says Castellano. "Their main goal was to teach us to speak English, but not to read it.... I liked school, too, but I just couldn't read. In seventh grade, I still couldn't read English."

Morales agrees with Castellano's assessment, adding, "I always liked school. I always got good grades, but I never had counseling. I mean, not when they'd say you should be this, or you should try to do that. It was almost like, 'Get out of grammar school and go get your picking sack ready so you can go pick our oranges.' That's what we were there for."

Castellano recalled a time when his sister, also a Palomares student at the time, was enrolled in a home economics class.

"In home economics, the teachers would take the girls to their houses, and the girls would clean their houses! That was home economics!"

Morales chimes in, "That was free labor."

Morales graduated out of Palomares and attended Bonita High School, while Castellano entered Lincoln School when the school segregation ended.

Castellano then learned what life was like on the other side of the tracks. "I remember going to class in the fifth grade," he says. "All the Anglo kids lined up to see us like we were troops coming in."

Castellano may have eventually settled into his new school, but there were still some who were unsettled by his presence, as well as the presence of all the other Latino students of Palomares.

"At Lincoln, I was talking to a teacher. There was this Anglo boy fooling around like he was going to hit me," Castellano explains. "But the teacher wouldn't say a thing until I put my hands on the boy to stop him from bothering me. [The teacher] grabbed me and just shook me. I then knew she was prejudiced."

Morales and Castellano each took valuable lessons from their childhood experiences.

"It taught me to try harder. No matter what I did, I'd try harder than the rest. I knew why they tried to stop me," Morales says.

Castellano adds, "It built us. It made us who we are and it taught us to appreciate life."

Both men agree that this aspect of La Verne's history has long been overlooked. "It's funny that people don't know that we had this in nice, quiet La Verne," says Morales. "They don't want to bring it up now, because they have a really good image. I see what people write in the paper about why they moved to La Verne-because it was a nice, quiet town. Tell them about the 1940s, and see if they'd still move in."

Castellano agrees, noting his coming to terms with the past. "I have no animosity toward anyone anymore," he says. "I think everyone should know what happened here."

Lena Coffman: "The Conscientious Objector"

Although a key focus has been placed on the students of Palomares, there was another group also struggling at the time. They were the teachers.

It was the teachers who in many respects were as frustrated as the children they were required to teach. A language barrier existed, one in which teachers were expected to educate non-English-speaking students as they would any other student they encountered in primarily English speaking schools.

Lena Coffman, then known by her maiden name, Lena Ott, taught seventh grade at Palomares from the fall of 1945 through the spring of 1946. She clearly understood the difficulties associated with not knowing the Spanish language.

"It was difficult in that the fact was teachers weren't expected to have any experience with the [Spanish] language, and we were expected to teach these children English. If the students had an emotional problem, then they couldn't express that problem proficiently enough, and the teacher couldn't help," she says.

Coffman was sympathetic to the needs of the children of Palomares. She felt that retaining a sense of culture was as important as assimilating into a new one.

"They have to take some pride in their culture. We were all in a difficult situation," Coffman recalls. "I don't even remember that we had any great wealth of materials to work with. It was a very limited environment. I don't feel we had any textbook to make them appreciate their own culture."

Not only was Coffman aware then of the importance of embracing one's own cultural identity, she understood also the fact that this sort of cultural stifling was occurring both in and out of the classroom-a practice she objected to.

"We were supposed to discipline the children for speaking Spanish, like it was something evil. It seemed so unfair that when they were playing, they weren't able to do that."

"I appreciated the children," Coffman confesses. "But, it was difficult because they couldn't speak their own language on the playground."

Although only able to experience the teaching experience at Palomares for one year, Coffman was able to see the social and educational isolation from the world that existed outside the walls of Palomares.

"I felt very, very isolated. Not only physical isolation, but if there had been a multicultural environment, they would have learned English better."

Coffman says she realized that the key to teaching students about a new culture was allowing her students not to feel ashamed of their own. This was obviously not the case at Palomares School.

"I suppose it made them feel that their culture was second class," she says, adding, "I think some of them have done very well in spite of it all."

Sally Cardenas and Mody Lopez: "Looking on the Bright Side"

For Sally Cardenas and her older brother Mody Lopez, attending school during La Verne's segregated era was as different as night and day. As it turned out, Cardenas attended Lincoln while Lopez went to Palomares.

"I only went to Palomares for one and a half years," recalls Cardenas. "My mother took me out of Palomares and sent me to Lincoln."

The reason for Cardenas' placement in Lincoln was due to an incident she encountered with a couple of neighborhood bullies.

"One time, I was coming home from school. It was raining and I had my little umbrella. They took my umbrella away, and one of them hit me over the head with it."

Shortly after the ugly umbrella incident on Walnut Street, Cardenas' mother, angry at what had happened, transferred her daughter to Lincoln.

Cardenas' schooling in Lincoln was filled with happy memories. She reflects back on the days when there would be a "May Festival," where she and other little girls would dress up in white, pink and blue dresses and dance around the May Pole.

She also fondly remembers taking a field trip to Brackett Field to take a ride in one of the many airplanes there. "That was a wonderful experience," she says. A smile beams on her face. "We still talk about that today."

Cardenas also recollects not being an outcast in Lincoln, and being one of few Latinos enrolled in the school.

"There were, I think, only four or five of us. There was just a handful of Hispanics who went to Lincoln, and I was one of them. I grew up with the white kids, so I really didn't feel that much segregation because I grew up over there."

She did, though, experience some animosity from those students she left behind in Palomares.

"The kids used to make fun of me," she says. "I always wondered, 'Why do they treat me like this?' Just because I didn't go to their school, you know? But, when I was going to Lincoln, I didn't feel the segregation at all.

Lopez's experience in Palomares was drastically different from the happy days Cardenas was having at Lincoln School.

"Their reasoning was, you couldn't touch an Anglo because you would make him dirty. You would corrupt him, or you would somehow give him a foreign disease doctors didn't know about," he says. "You know, things like that. They would come out with all kinds of biased crap like that. It's impossible to believe all the things they would talk about you."

True, Lopez was aware of the racism directed toward him, but did those attempting to belittle him bother him? "Actually," he says in a matter-of-fact way, "We were living our own lives. I, myself, didn't care if they lived or died."

One reason Cardenas credited for allowing her and Lopez to deal with the racial intolerance at the time was the strong presence of their mother and father. "I don't think [the segregation] affected my family in any way because my dad and my mom were not the type of people who would tell us, 'You're a Mexican, and those are the white kids,'" says Cardenas.

My parents were good people and so religious that they never emphasized anything like that. They would tell us, 'You're a person, and that's it.'"

The experience at Palomares School was one that Lopez remembers for many reasons, most notably what it taught him about racial equality, a subject he speaks passionately about.

"They tried to suppress us. They tried everything on earth, and they defeated their own purpose because they could never make you an Anglo. They didn't want you to be an Anglo. They wanted you to be subservient to them."

Lopez remembers some teachers at Palomares who, although seeming sympathetic to the children on the surface, still looked at them differently. "They don't see you as an equal. They see you as a different person. They look at you, and you are not like they are."

For Lopez, the realities of segregation were harsh ones. He speaks of the difficult experience of attending school in a society where one was not allowed to feel as if he is anything but a human being.

"It's like you treat your dog," emotes Lopez. "You treat him really nice, and you love him, but you still treat him like a dog. For us, it was worse. [The teachers] may like you for their own reasons, but they still don't even treat you like a human. At least you treat a dog like a dog.

"But, sometimes they treated you like you are less than they are, or that you are less than what you really are. Like you don't suffer the same as they do, or hurt the same as they do or desire the same things that they do. It's things like that. It's the mentality."

This is the mentality that Lopez believes, "stinks." Cardenas and Lopez both agree that the rules that denied Latino students to speak their native Spanish language in school made for a feeling of shame in the classroom. "We were made to feel ashamed to be Mexican," says Lopez.

Cardenas adds, "They did make you feel somewhat smaller."

Both also saw a need to reflect on the positive ending to a story that began as, in may respects, less than happy. "A good number of kids who went to Palomares didn't go on to college," says Lopez. "A lot of them went into jobs and became contractors, carpenters, farmers. They made a good living for themselves. You didn't find very many who didn't have some success in life."

Cardenas remembers, "I read all of these stories that come out in the paper, and it's always the negative side of Hispanics-the struggle and all that. I think somebody should write about what came out of that.

"The people, the older ones, who grew up and made a name for themselves; they struggled, yes, but they survived, and they made good. There's a lot of good that came out of this."

However, Lopez probably discovered the most important lesson of all following this era-a lesson that Latinos everywhere can understand.

"You can't stop the Mexican culture," says Lopez.



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