(Santa Ana, CA) - At a regularly scheduled board meeting on July 21, Rancho Santiago Community College District’s (RSCCD) Board of Trustees unanimously approved the naming of the Santiago Canyon College library in honor of Lorenzo A. Ramirez.
Ramirez was one of five Mexican-American fathers, including Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez, and Frank Palomino, who challenged school segregation of Mexican-American children. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children were being forced to attend separate schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena school districts in Orange County. The case filed in 1946 has become known as Mendez, et al, v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. In a 1947 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, it was determined that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican-American students into separate “Mexican schools” was unconstitutional. It was the first federal court case to hold that separate schools for children of color were not equal.
“This is a special moment in the history of Rancho Santiago Community College District and in Orange County about the leadership some of our residents have taken to affect national policy,” said Jose Solorio, president of RSCCD Board of Trustees. “Lorenzo Ramirez is a hero to our community and to all people who believe that everyone deserves equal rights and a quality public education. He was a humble man who acted on his beliefs and left a positive mark in America."
Ramirez, who only completed an eighth grade education, had attended Roosevelt Elementary School in Orange’s El Modena neighborhood in the 1920s as one of few Mexican students. After marrying Josefina, he and his bride moved to Whittier where he worked as a foreman at the Murphy Ranch. There he enrolled his three sons in the primarily white elementary school without a problem. However, when he moved the family back to El Modena in 1944, school administrators told him that his sons could not attend Roosevelt, but that they had to attend the crumbling Lincoln school, the “Mexican” school that was next door.
In his court testimony, Ramirez stated, “We live in a country where everyone is equal.” Because of this belief he joined the other four Orange County Latino families in filing a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Despite the role he played, Ramirez never spoke with his family about the trial. He spent his life focusing on the things he thought were important.
While earning a living as a ranch laborer, he worked with local ranch owners to bring in Mexican laborers as part of the government-backed bracero program. He also was a member of the Holy Names Society at La Purisima Catholic Church in Orange where he helped raise funds to build a church. According to his daughter Phyllis Ramirez Zepeda, her father worked as a chauffeur, a horse groomer, a construction laborer, and as head of spraying insecticide for the City of Orange. He also served as leader for the HOD Carriers union.
Phyllis, a retired first grade teacher, remembers that her father made sure that all eleven Ramirez children — seven boys and four girls — learned how to read. “He thought that reading was important,” said Phyllis. “He had a system.”
She was reminded of the system when she first started teaching. According to Phyllis, her father bought a book for the older boys and he read that book to them. Then they had to read it to him until they had every word memorized. Then it was their job to teach the next younger children how to read that book and each brother and sister repeated that favor for the next younger Ramirez child until all had mastered the art of reading.
“He told us that a library is a precious gift and to make sure you can read so you can get ahead. It worked for us,” said Phyllis.
The unanimous vote by the RSCCD Board of Trustees approving the naming of the Lorenzo A. Ramirez Library at Santiago Canyon College was met by applause, tears, and many smiles.
“It’s an affirmation of what my Dad did,” said Phyllis. “It recognizes that one person with courage and integrity can do a great deal for the community. It’s important to show children that if you really want change, you need to take action.”
About Rancho Santiago Community College District
Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College are public community colleges of the Rancho Santiago Community College District, which serves the residents of Anaheim Hills, Garden Grove, Irvine, Orange, Santa Ana, Tustin and Villa Park. Both colleges provide education for academic transfer and careers, courses for personal and professional development, and customized training for business and industry.
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