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Carpinteria’s Segregated Past

Aliso School: ‘For the Mexican Children’


SPLIT SCHOOLS: Carpinteria, the pleasant little city on “The World’s Safest Beach,” has an embarrassing, shameful secret buried in its not-too-distant history.

For about 27 years, the town’s school system “was almost as sharply divided by racial segregation as those of the American South,” former student John McCafferty revealed in his book Aliso School: “For the Mexican Children.”

Barney Brantingham

From about 1920 until 1947, Mexican Americans and others with Spanish surnames were shunted off to Aliso School “regardless of their language abilities or rights as American citizens” and received a substandard education preparing them, for the most part, to quit school early and work in the lemon fields and packing sheds, according to McCafferty.

At one point the school board became concerned about possibly violating state law and took advantage of a statute allowing segregation of “Indians” and “Orientals.” The board declared the Latinos to be “Indians.”

The Carpinteria Herald and the Santa Barbara newspapers apparently didn’t find the bias worthy of news coverage, even though this was at a time when Santa Barbara, Summerland, and Goleta schools found no reason to be strictly segregated.

Mexican Americans were also required to sit on the right side of Carpinteria’s Del Mar movie theater and were told not to swim or sunbathe on the portion of “The World’s Safest Beach” at the foot of Linden Avenue. Aliso students were slapped or smacked with a ruler for speaking Spanish, even on the playground.

“A few parents successfully challenged the segregation, but it was difficult to do so unless parents were extremely insistent and quite skilled in speaking English,” McCafferty wrote in his follow-up book, Aliso II: Recuerdos. For the most part, students were children of lemon workers and struggled to learn a language not spoken at home.

In Recuerdos, McCafferty writes that “Numerous Aliso graduates have pointed out that, to some extent, Aliso School was a feeder school to the lemon industry. It was not to the industry’s advantage to have Aliso students become well-educated and eventually move to jobs that paid more than lemon packing and picking and ranch work.

“As a result, there were some fairly strong efforts to keep Aliso graduates from enrolling in college-prep classes and making long-range educational plans.” He quotes Richard Perez, a 1944 Aliso graduate who felt ill-prepared for high school. “They put me in dumbbell English in the ninth grade, and I really wanted to be in college-preparatory English,” he told McCafferty. “But they gave me some tests, and while they never told me the results, they didn’t move me, either.”

Perez, however, praised his 7th- and 8th-grade teacher, Robert Leslie, for pushing students to do their best. “He was honest, strict, and fair.” Perez also recalled hearing the joint principal of both Aliso and the Anglo-only crosstown elementary school telling Leslie, “Why don’t you come over to Main School? You’re wasting your time here. These kids won’t be going to college anyway.”

But some managed to, against the odds. With perseverance and a Carpinteria Woods Scholarship, which also helped other Aliso grads go to college, Perez went on to Cal Poly, served in the Marines during World War II, graduated in math from La Verne College, and became an engineering supervisor for Computer Sciences Corporation in Ventura County, McCafferty said.

Others recall the Aliso experience with a bitter and lingering sense of being demeaned, treated like second-class citizens, and cheated out of the future they deserved.

Roberto “Olly” Olivas found a substandard classroom when he transferred from the integrated Summerland school. “I can attest to the inferior quality of education and administrative practices that failed to challenge our abilities or expectations. Emotionally unsuited individuals were assigned as teachers, some of whom did not care if we attended class or not ….”

Olivas recalled painful and embarrassing times. He felt that some teachers were not only ill-equipped for the classroom but also racially prejudiced against the students. After attending Aliso from 1936 to 1940, he dropped out to pick lemons. In a 1992 speech, he said, “Our work opportunity was limited to joining a powerless, voiceless, Hispanic army of stoop-labor migrant farmworkers who toiled in the hot sun, harvesting the rich fields and orchards of California. We were subjected to unwarranted indignities and denied any recourse for complaint or appeal ….”

Olivas, however, went on to serve in the Army, open a paint and body shop, become a Summerland-Carpinteria district firefighter, and get elected to the Carpinteria City Council.

Carpinteria’s schools were finally integrated in 1947 after the state Supreme Court banned school segregation, McCafferty said. Aliso students were no longer “Indians.” It was one of California’s last segregated schools. Now that Anglo students in grades one through four would be attending Aliso, the school board hastened to improve the disgraceful separate-but-unequal conditions there. Aliso remains a school today, in a new, more enlightened era.

McCafferty attended Main School starting in 1947. He went on to earn a master’s degree, teach English at Santa Barbara City College, and become my friend and colleague at the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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