The Lemon Grove Incident

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Phoenix College Latino Film Festival will show The Lemon Grove Incident, a film examining the response of the Mexican-American community in Lemon Grove, California to a 1930 school board attempt to create a segregated school for the Mexican American children of the district. Producer and writer Professor Paul Espinosa, from ASU School of Transborder Studies discusses the film.

Jose Cardenas: It's been more than eighty years since Mexican immigrant families in Lemon Grove, California, fought an attempt by an all-white school board to segregate their children and won the case in a San Diego court. It is considered the nation's first successful desegregation court case 23 years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The case will be the focus of one of the films being shown and discussed at the 2012 Phoenix College Latino Film Festival. With me to talk about the case and the film is Professor Paul Espinosa, from ASU's School of Transborder Studies. Professor Espinosa produced and wrote the film about the Lemon Grove Incident. It's always a pleasure to have you on this show.

Paul Espinosa: Thank you.

Jose Cardenas: This film is one of many things you've won awards for. Before we talk about the making of the film and why you chose it for the film festival, tell us about the Lemon Grove Incident itself.

Paul Espinosa: This basically was one of the earliest school segregation cases in the United States. They were litigating the issue of separate but equal and there were many incidents where school districts created the Americanization schools which basically were in many cases really de facto segregation. They were providing inferior education to Mexican-American students in different school districts and what happened in Lemon Grove, which is just a tiny little community outside of San Diego, was that the school board decided to set up a separate school for the Mexican children of the district. This was at a point where the Mexican children comprised almost a majority of the students in the school. The numbers had been increasing, and much to the surprise of the school board, the Mexican-American community decided to fight this. They were unhappy when they learned about it. The school board actually was not very forthcoming in even letting them know this was going to happen.

Jose Cardenas: So I understand that the students just showed up one day and they were told they had to go to the other school, which was basically a barn.

Paul Espinosa: Exactly. It was like hardly even a school and essentially, then the Mexican-American community instructed their children not to attend this other school.

Jose Cardenas: And I think that's the class where some of the students who were--

Paul Espinosa: Right. That's a picture of the class from one of the classes from this time period. And then the community essentially sued the school board. The Mexican consul in San Diego was very involved during this period. This was the 1930s. This was during the depression; President Herbert Hoover started this massive repatriation thing during this time period. So it was a very tough time for Mexicans.

Jose Cardenas: Repatriating Mexicans to Mexico and they included some people who were actually American citizens.

Paul Espinosa: Exactly. They essentially rounded up people and in many cases, American citizens were actually deported. It was essentially illegal. But that was the climate at the time. But the Mexican-American community sued the school board and they were able to get some advice from the Mexican consul. They were able to get an attorney who the Mexican consul actually recommended and they went to court, much to the surprise of the school board. And they won this case. And actually, I think in retrospect, the school board could have appealed the case but they didn't. I have a feeling, given the climate that if they had, they probably would have won it on appeal but they didn't. So in some ways, the case really almost came from god because it wasn't appealed. It didn't have a larger impact outside of Lemon Grove. But I think it was really part of a larger ongoing struggle by Mexican-Americans and other non-white parents because there were also Asian-Americans and Native-American communities that filed suit in similar circumstances. This would be in the American southwest, prior to 1954, which is the Brown V. Board of education. Another big case happened in California that was the real precursor to Brown, which was very similar where the school board tried to segregate Mexican-American children and in essence provide an inferior education to these children.

Jose Cardenas: Now, the Lemon Grove Incident itself may have been forgotten until you did the film but your film has been in constant demand for the last 27 years. Why?

Paul Espinosa: Well, I think the film really has struck a chord. I think it's a fine film. It's won many, many awards. It was a film done for public television. It was shown nationally on public television and it's been shown in festivals around the world. It basically speaks to a basic injustice, the idea that Mexican-American children or children that are not -- that Mexican-American children should have the same rights as other children and I think as people have discovered this incident, they've gotten an awareness that we didn't just start fighting the battle for educational rights yesterday. It's been going on for a long period of time and there have been victories along the way. I think a lot of times, there's sort of a stereotype somehow that Mexican-Americans are not interested in education or that they're not really being an advocate for their children and I think this was also a case where you saw very clearly that they were big advocates for their children.

Jose Cardenas: The festival runs from the 10th of April to the 13th. Several different films will be shown. They came to you and asked you to pick one. Is the reason you picked this all the reasons you just mentioned? You have a whole host of other Emmy-award-winning films that you could have chosen. Why this one?

Paul Espinosa: I felt that the time was right to present this film. I know it's been shown on public television here in the past but there's probably still a brand-new audience that would like to see it. Obviously, I think the issue of educational rights and that kind of thing is very paramount in our minds these days. The phoenix school district is actually almost I think now a majority Latino in terms of who are in the school district. So I think it would be important for people to learn about this previous chapter in this long battle for educational rights.

Jose Cardenas: And given the omnipresence of the Tucson district issues, do you think this is a film that would be prohibited by our new ethnic studies statute?

Paul Espinosa: I wouldn't think so but you never know. The statutes are written rather broadly. I think it's definitely -- its part and parcel of American history that we need to know more about. I think that certainly my efforts and the efforts of other people to fill in some of the blanks of our experience of the American experience that Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans have been part of, that those are really important things that we need to know more about, we need to learn more about and I think hopefully, we'll be able to do more of that in the future.

Jose Cardenas: Paul, as we noted, you've been involved in a lot of projects and you've got some on the drawing boards right now. Let's talk about what you're working on at the moment.

Paul Espinosa: Right now, I'm working on a film on a musician from southern California, who's been a real advocate basically for social justice, for immigrant rights, other kinds of issues that I think are very important and he's been around for a long time since the chicano movement and we're trying to tell his story, show the relevance of some of the issues that are still around. I mean, sometimes, we think that some of these issues that were fought about 20, 30, 40 years ago are no longer relevant but I think we see with the current headlines it's still really important to acquaint people and to learn about and to emphasize the importance of fighting for social justice rights for people around the country. And it's this film called Rising Souls, Stinging Scorpion is basically about a particular individual, a musician, who uses music as a way of informing and educating and letting people know about some of the really important issues that are out there in his community.

Jose Cardenas: Give us a few more details about his story because it's a fascinating one.

Paul Espinosa: Well, basically this is actually a man who grew up in California on the Arizona-California border, goes to San Diego in the late '60s and is part of the Chicano Movement and becomes very sort of educated about what's going on and starts to get involved with the united farmworkers with Cesar Chavez and becomes one of Cesar Chavez's favorite musicians during the time period, he went up and down the state of California, bringing awareness to the plight of farmworkers. This man, Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez comes from a farm worker background. He goes to the city as many Mexican-Americans did during this time period and becomes involved in a new battle for rights in the 1960s during the 1960s, 1970s and really onto the present.

Jose Cardenas: And when will we see it on the screen?

Paul Espinosa: I hope to have it available for the film festival next year.

Jose Cardenas: On that note, Paul Espinosa, thank you so much for joining us to talk about that and, of course, about the Lemon Grove Incident.

Paul Espinosa: Thank you.

Paul Espinosa:ASU School of Transborder Studies;

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