Lopez V. Seccombe
Lopez V. Seccombe
KVCR participated in a reenactment of the Lopez v. Seccombe desegregation case.
On September 15, 2022, KVCR participated in a community event with dignitaries of the San Bernardino Superior Courts, local high school students, and members of the community to provide a reenactment of the historical Lopez v. Seccombe desegregation case at Mitla Cafe.
Lopez V Seccombe Preview
KVCR Public Media invites you to participate in the funding of a groundbreaking documentary film project that highlights the history of Mexican Americans in Southern California’s Inland Empire. The working title is Lopez v. Seccombe. It will tell the little-known but exceptionally important story of Lopez v. Seccombe (1944). This court case led to the desegregation of public swimming pools and recreational facilities in the City of San Bernardino during World War II. The Lopez case served as one of the earliest successful class-action legal challenges in American history to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to desegregate public facilities.
The events leading up to the court case will provide viewers with a glimpse into the daily forms of discrimination experienced by Mexican American people in the Inland Empire and how they effectively organized to combat such inequities. Our documentary film will historically situate the case by providing the social, cultural, and political history of the Inland Empire region as related to Mexican Americans and communities of color. We feature individuals and community voices that lived through these historical events.
The film will emphasize the Valles family of San Bernardino’s west side Mexican community. Gonzalo and Jovita Valles migrated into San Bernardino during the 1910s in order to escape the social upheaval brought about by the Mexican Revolution. Once established in the city’s west side barrio, Gonzalo and Jovita emerged as important civic leaders. Gonzalo emerged as a successful manager of the Santa Fe commissary store, civil rights advocate, promoter of Mexican artists, and radio show host. He also held elected offices in Mexican American civic organizations, including the Cámara de Comercio [Mexican American Chamber of Commerce], the Alianza Hispano Americana, and the Confederación de Sociedades Mexicanas. Jovita, meanwhile, participated in church activities at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and was an active member in the local PTA.
When the U.S. entered World War II, the family patriotically dedicated themselves to the war effort. Antonio and Juvenal, the two oldest sons, volunteered to serve in the U.S. Air Force, while Gonzalo contributed to the domestic front by holding war bond drives. On May 30, 1943, Gonzalo and Jovita Valles received an early morning phone call from the Army Air Corps. They were informed that Juvenal had drowned when his canoe capsized during a military exercise in Des Moines, Iowa. Only nineteen-years-old, the cadet did not recover after two hours of medical attention. For the Valles family, Juvenal’s death marked the beginning of a painful and tumultuous summer. When Juvenal’s body arrived in San Bernardino, employees at Mountain View Cemetery denied him burial because of his Mexican background. Two months later, at the Perris Hill municipal swimming pool, Gonzalo and Jovita’s thirteen-year-old son Mike Valles was refused entry on the grounds that he was “Mexican".
Gonzalo and Jovita responded by organizing an extensive community effort to defend them and other Mexican youth from the city’s segregationist policies. Gonzalo spearheaded the desegregation campaign by forming the Mexican American Defense Committee, a coalition that included Catholic priest José Núñez, Spanish-language newspaper editors Ignacio López and Eugenio Nogueras, and local Mexican merchants. With the help of white-allies, such as Congressman Harry Sheppard and even soliciting support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Mexican community successfully desegregated the Mountain View Cemetery. In their pursuit of desegregating the Perris Hill swimming pool, the Defense Committee hired Jewish-American attorney David C. Marcus, and pursued legal action against San Bernardino officials for their roles in denying Mexican children access to the municipal swimming pool.
David C. Marcus successfully invoked the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to sue the city on behalf of 8,000 Mexican American residents, who were only allowed to use the swimming pool the day before the water was drained. City officials’ racial logic was to argue that Mexicans were too dirty to use the facilities at any other time. They also argued that cleanliness was the only factor in consideration, although white swimmers were never questioned. Ultimately, federal court judge Leon R. Yankwich issued a permanent injunction in Lopez v. Seccombe, barring city officials from segregating public recreational facilities. The case assumes regional and national significance through its connections to the celebrated Mendez v. Westminster (1947)that helped to desegregate California schools. Marcus built on the victory of Lopez to further contest segregation as the attorney in Mendez.
The Mendez case has received widespread recognition for its connections to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. However, Lopez v. Seccombe, which demonstrated the role that Mexican Americans played in desegregation of public recreational facilities prior to the Mendez case, is often omitted from the narrative of the historical record. This film will remedy this omission by telling the history of grassroots organizing by Inland Empire activists. It will further demonstrate how the under-studied Inland Empire region helped to lay a foundation in breaking segregationist legal doctrine across Southern California and the United States.
KVCR originally became aware of this case when the Honorable Judge John Pacheco organized a reenactment of the Lopez v. Seccombe case in October 2022. Judge Pacheco collaborated with Dr. Mark Ocegueda, a local historian who is also professor of history at Brown University, to tell the story to the public. In this documentary, we will provide a first-hand account of this story from people who experienced being turned away from the Perris Hill swimming pool. Recorded interviews with Gonzalo Valles’ children will be woven together with the case’s remarkable history, to tell the story of the courageous Valles family and the Mexican American residents of San Bernardino.
In the reenactment the sitting judge was Honorable Manuel Ramirez who stated in his personal closing remarks, “They were just parents and people who wanted their children to have the best that America had to offer and they were willing to go toe-toe to obtain those rights … Part of progressing forward is looking backward and remembering where we have been, realizing how far we have come and recognizing that it takes ordinary people with extraordinary results to make America truly a land of equal opportunity and a land of justice for all.”
This civil rights case changed a family, which changed a community, which set precedence for an era.
Help us to give this story the recognition it deserves.
Executive Director, Connie Leyva
Office: (909) 384-4332 | Cell: (909) 289-3096