A History of Mexican Americans in California:
Casa Blanca School
The Casa Blanca School in Riverside epitomizes the historical tradition of de facto segregated, separate, and unequal education of Chicano and other ethnic minority children in California. It also epitomizes the coordinated, successful struggle of ethnic minority communities to fight against racism and unequal education.
Born in the political, economic, and social conflicts between Mexicanos and Anglos in the post-Mexican-American War period, the policy and tradition of racial segregation of Riverside schools continued until 1965. It was initiated in 1874, when newly arrived Anglos created the Trujillo School District to serve the residents of La Placita, thus isolating the Mexican community from Riverside. In 1906, the Riverside City School Board reaffirmed the 1874 decision by ruling that all children must attend school in the attendance district in which they lived.
This ruling was aimed at the growing number of Mexican immigrant families who were being imported to work as line crews on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Mexican labor was also being recruited for the growing citrus industry, which had boomed in the 1880s and was quickly becoming the economic mainstay of the region. By the early twentieth century, Mexican labor replaced Chinese and Japanese labor, the earliest unskilled labor force brought into the Riverside area. In addition to working the citrus orchards, packing houses, and railroads, Mexican laborers worked in the nearby cement plants and rock quarries and on construction of the Salt Lake Bridge over the Santa Ana River.
Chicanos established themselves early in Casa Blanca. They bought small lots from growers who offered land at reasonable prices in an effort to retain a resident supply of cheap labor. Thus, some Chicanos owned their own land in an early period of the barrio's history. They established social and labor organizations and opened small businesses in their community. In 1902, Chicanos founded a mutual benefit society, the Sociedad de la Vella Union de Trabajadores, and in 1907 organized the Superior de la Union Patriotica y Beneficia Mexicana, dedicated to aiding fellow Chicanos during hard times. In 1917, citrus workers struck for higher wages. The growers' efforts to recruit other Mexicanos as strikebreakers failed, and the Riverside citrus workers won their strike.
While the Chicano colonia in Casa Blanca and the nearby Eastside areas grew, Riverside's educational policies also grew more clearly entrenched in favor of racial segregation. By the early 1920s, when the Casa Blanca School was built, the community surrounding this facility was predominantly Mexican. Thus, Casa Blanca became a segregated Mexican school and remained so for the next 40 years, until 1965. In addition to de facto segregation and gerrymandering, the Riverside School District adopted the "poll-tax" tactic used in politics to tax education. That is, in view of the fact that citrus work was seasonal and that most children migrated with their families, the school district assessed a fee of $8.00 per semester per migrant child for the privilege of attending Riverside High School. The fee for attending elementary school was $4.00 per semester. In Riverside, neither voting nor public education were accessible to most migrant Mexican families.
In 1924, Mabra Madden became principal of Casa Blanca School, where he remained for the next 40 years. During his tenure, the school became famous as more than an educational facility. It became a community social center, with Madden acting as dispenser of social service information and mediator with law enforcement and other public agencies. While Madden was helpful to the community on many fronts, people in the community, particularly in later years, resented what they considered to be a kind of benevolent patronship cultivated by the principal. Irrespective of one's view of Madden, segregation under his principalship meant second-class education for Chicano children. "Casa Blanca School pursued a policy of holding back at least one third of the Chicano students. They would spend two years in the first grade, two years in the second grade, etc. . . ." (Paul A. Viafora, Riverside, p. 29)
In 1965, the Riverside school system's historical policy of ethnic segregation ended. Riverside became the first city of its size in the nation to voluntarily and totally desegregate its elementary schools. The desegregation campaign of Riverside schools was developed by Eastside Blacks and Chicanos. While city government leaders viewed integration with slight support, some opposition, and considerable caution, circumstances prompted them to develop and implement plans for integration with Black and Chicano community groups. One circumstance included a petition with 300 signatures of Eastside residents calling for an end to segregation of the city's schools. The evening the petition was presented to the school board, less than three weeks after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Lowell School in Riverside went up in flames. Integration leaders pressed the issue, instituted a boycott of segregated schools, and began to organize freedom schools.
The school board acted with unprecedented haste. Working closely with Chicanos and Blacks, the board developed a plan for closing the city's three racially segregated schools and for total desegregation through busing of Riverside's elementary schools by 1967.
In 1972, the Diocese of San Diego bought the property and structure known as the Casa Blanca School. It is now used as a community social center. One portion of the structure is used as a boxing club. The Diocese plans to remodel the building, and to eventually establish a parochial school in Casa Blanca. The Chicano community has helped refurbish the building. The exterior of the structure has recently been painted. A local Chicano artist placed two stained glass panels on the front of the school and also painted murals on the front and two sides of the building. The front mural is of La Virgen de Guadalupe, done in blue tile; the side murals are in acrylic. This same artist painted murals at the Ismael Villegas Community Center, just down the street from the school. Villegas, a native of Casa Blanca, was one of the few Californians to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.
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