Chronicle: San Bernardino judge reenacts 1944 case that allowed Mexicans to use pool


They sent the hard-shelled tacos Thursday to Mitla Café the same way they’ve done for 85 years — freshly fried, with a blizzard of cheddar cheese on top and a side of history.

The old Route 66 restaurant in San Bernardino is one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Southern California. Glen Bell of Taco Bell infamy bugged the founders in the 1950s for their taco recipe, and they generously agreed.

More importantly, Mitla served as the anchor in the city’s Westside neighborhood for decades. It’s a place where historic civil rights battles were planned and where community groups still gather over combo plates and multiple orders of these crunchy, sublime tacos.

The tacos were what San Bernardino Superior Court Judge John Pacheco ordered while waiting for a civic experiment to begin.

People gather at Mitla Café to watch a re-enactment of the Lopez v. Seccombe case that desegregated the pools of San Bernardino in 1944.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Pacheco was set to host a free noon reading of Lopez’s closing arguments against Seccombe. In 1944, two editors and a Catholic priest sued San Bernardino on behalf of its 8,000 Mexican American residents, who were only allowed to use the town’s only swimming pool the day before the water was drained.

City officials argued that the Mexicans were too filthy to use the facilities at any other time. Attorney David C. Marcus successfully argued that this amounted to discrimination. It was one of the first civil rights class action lawsuits in the United States, influencing far more famous decisions like Mendez et al. against Westminster and Brown v Board of Education.

“Even though it’s a monumental case, it doesn’t get any attention,” Pacheco said. “I wanted to bring him here. ¡Mira alli!”

He then pointed to framed photos featuring Mitla Café regular Cesar Chavez. “That’s where San Bernardino Chicanos got the ball rolling,” he said.

Fellow conservatives have accused Pacheco of trying to advance an “agenda” by piecing Lopez against Seccombe.

“I’m not trying to be political,” he said. “I’m just reconstructing facts.”

All the strata of the Westside of San Bernardino had been proven. The political class gobbled up huevos rancheros in sharp suits and electric skirts. Older residents, dressed in Panama hats and guayaberas, waited for tables. Outside, a bus stopped with high school students from Yucaipa, Calimesa, San Bernardino and other Inland Empire communities.

Mark Ocegueda, professor of history at Brown University

Brown University professor Mark Ocegueda, who has written extensively on Lopez vs. Seccombe, presents the story at Mitla Café.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Near the center of the restaurant, Brown University history professor and San Bernardino native Mark Ocegueda accepted hugs and handshakes. He has arguably done more to promote Lopez against Seccombe than anyone else through lectures, academic articles and online publications.

In fact, Pacheco was inspired to stage the case after coming across Ocegueda’s doctoral thesis on the subject.

“There’s this idea that in the Inland Empire, there’s not a lot of significant history that happened here that helps us understand California history,” Ocegueda, 34, said. “But this case is a vivid example of the importance of this Mexican-American community to understanding the history of California and the American West.”

I asked if he found it odd that something like this happened in a restaurant at lunchtime.

“We could have packed a whole theater at a more convenient time,” said the teacher replied laughing. “The fact that it’s at Mitla Café, such an important site in our neighborhood…If there’s going to be an event here, people know it’s going to be something special.”

It was show time.

The Mitla Café banquet hall accommodated approximately 200 people. A camera crew with the local PBS station was ready to film. Free paperback copies of the US Constitution sat on a table outside the entrance.

Nearby, Christian Gonzalez, a senior from Oak Hills High School outside Hesperia, stood in front of a bulletin board containing newspaper clippings about the case, photos of the plaintiffs and neatly written captions.

“It was really hard to find this information, but I’m glad to know that a lot of things are starting to come to light,” Gonzalez said. “It was a springboard for human rights.”

He discussed his work with Jennifer Tilton, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Redlands. She teaches Lopez vs. Seccombe to her students, few of whom have ever heard of it.

“They always come in wanting to know how the racism played out in their backyard,” she said. “The students are impatient. The students are hungry. They don’t want a story from Alabama, they want a story from here.

Everyone happily munched on burritos, taquitos, fries, and guacamole. But there wasn’t a single creak heard in the house when Pacheco started the program.

“That’s where it all started,” Judge said over the hum of electric fans and the kitchen. “This city is amazing. It has so much history. Your children should be proud of where you come from.

Ocegueda gave a PowerPoint talk on the protagonists. There was a short video with Judith Valles, the first Latina mayor of a major American city, whose parents were heavily involved in the fight.

Then came the time to reconstitute the pleadings.

“We’re going to dive deep,” Judge Pacheco said to laughter from the audience. “No pun intended.”

Judge Manuel Ramirez portrays Judge Leon Yankwich in a Lopez vs. Seccombe reenactment.

Judge Manuel Ramirez portrays Judge Leon Yankwich in a Lopez vs. Seccombe reenactment.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Local attorney Michael Bidart took on the role of Marcus, representing Mexican residents of San Bernardino.

Another lawyer, Michael Scaffidi, played HR Griffith, who defended racist policies. San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia replaced his longtime predecessor William Seccombe. Two local children acted as the children at the center of the affair, who were banned from swimming.

It was all presided over by California Court of Appeals Judge Manuel Ramirez, who sat under a large replica of the Great Seal of California. He would be Leon Yankwich, the federal judge.

Children and adults took out their phones and hung on to every word for the next 20 minutes.

Bidart channeled Marcus’ passion when he answered a question from Judge Yankwich — uh, Ramirez — about whether the separate but equal policies of the time meant Mexican Americans could just go in their own group instead of demanding desegregation.

“They don’t have another pool to go to,” Bidart replied. “They’re going swimming in the Santa Ana River.”

Ramirez perfectly played the role of a skeptical judge who slowly convinced himself. But the real star was Scaffidi, tasked with defending the indefensible. His transformation from cocky to spitty was a slow-burning masterclass. When he spat words like “pachuco” and “community agitators” with venom, the audience gasped and grumbled with genuine emotion.

After the arguments, Judge Ramirez addressed the audience as himself. Some of his peers wonder why civil rights cases get so much public attention, he said, when other landmark decisions like Gideon v. Wainwright – which guarantees a lawyer to anyone accused of a Crime — and Marbury v. Madison — which allows federal courts to strike down unconstitutional laws — are increasingly ignored.

“What grabs our hearts and stirs our souls about these [desegregation] case ? Ramirez asked.

He answered his own question: it was the “fathers and mothers” who “dared to stand up to forces far greater than themselves and collectively said, ‘This is not right. It’s not America.

The crowd gave Ramirez and his fellow amateur actors a standing ovation.

Then the students talked enthusiastically and lined up to meet the actors.

Nicole Vega, who chaperones students at San Gorgiono High, said the re-enactment “immediately struck me.” His grandfather and brothers were airmen deployed to Europe during World War II, so San Bernardino’s discriminatory pool policies “would have applied to them”.

“Seeing history come to life was crazy but awesome,” said San Gorgiono senior Aniya Moore. “I didn’t know anything about it, but now I want to know more.”

Her friend, fellow senior Nautika James, agreed.

“More schools should hear about it,” she said. “These are stories at home.”

Los Angeles Times

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