Original URL:  http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0922civilrights22.html

Adios to culture of segregation

Hispanic historian: Learn from past for better future
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Christina Leonard

People from across the state flocked to Tempe Beach's Olympic-sized pool after it opened in the 1920s. Considered the "brilliant star in Tempe's crown," it quickly became a place where families came to relax, teens came to flirt, and athletes came to compete.

But Mexican Americans never came.

They weren't allowed.

"It was a policy that it was assumed everyone knew and everyone adhered to," historian Christine Marin said.

Flash forward to 2003, when Latinos hold high-ranking leadership positions and make up about 25 percent of Arizona's population. The majority of Latinos here are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

And Marin, curator and archivist of Arizona State University's Chicano Research Collection, believes their history should be told.

In conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month, Marin will discuss organizing for civil rights in Tempe and Phoenix at a free lecture from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday at ASU's Downtown Center, 502 E. Monroe St., Phoenix.

Marin said Tempe's story is one that "nobody ever really knows or hears or learns about."

"One should really learn the history of the group and be able to understand the culture, the traditions, and the history," she said.

Tempe Beach, built with taxpayer funds near present-day Mill Avenue, opened in July 1923. Marin said the pool maintained and enforced an unwritten "No Mexicans Allowed" policy until 1946 when Mexican American veterans united to eliminate it.

Mesa resident and veteran Gilbert Orrantia, 85, said he was a freshman at Arizona State Teacher's College, now Arizona State University, when his physical education coach decided to take the class to Tempe Beach in 1937.

"But I was of Mexican-American descent, so I couldn't swim," Orrantia said. "I sat around and watched them . . . I was really angry."

It wasn't the first time Orrantia experienced discrimination, and it wouldn't be the last. Marin said Hispanics in the Valley frequently experienced segregation at theaters, restaurants and other public facilities, including housing projects.

When World War II veterans returned to Phoenix after the war, city officials wanted to provide emergency housing for them near downtown. But officials wanted to build separate units - one for European Americans, one for Mexican Americans and one for African Americans.

"The veterans were opposed to that because the housing for the Mexican Americans was going to be near a dump over in South Phoenix," Marin said. "And they said, 'We fought together, we fought the same issue together, we were in the same foxholes together. Why can't we live together?'"

Those opposed to desegregation claimed the crime rate would rise and "wives and children will be in jeopardy," Marin said.

The issue went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled the housing should be integrated in 1946.

Orrantia, a former educator, actively fought these issues as a member of Los Conquistadores while still in school. But these days, he doesn't talk much about this part of his history.

"It seems like people don't want to hear it," he said. "And I'm not the type of person who holds grudges. I understand why it was being done.

"But I wasn't the kind of person to sit around and accept it."

For more information about the lecture, go to www.asu.edu/xed/lectures.

Reach the reporter at christina.leonard@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-4845.