Thursday, June 14, 2012

Arletta Kelly: Teacher of the "Mexican Schools"

The following is from a series of profiles of notable Fullertonians (past and present) that I am compiling for the Fullerton College Centennial exhibit.  To share you story, please visit

For many years, Mexicans in Fullerton were regarded as second-class citizens whose primary social and economic role was picking and packing citrus fruits for the major growers in town, like the Chapmans and the Bastanchurys.  Mexican families, often fleeing political turmoil and/or poverty in their homeland, were forced to live in "citrus towns" on the groves or next to the packing plants.  These communities, often little more than shantytowns, were segregated from the dominant (white) community.  Disregarding child labor laws, entire Mexican families often worked long hours for low pay on these groves, just to survive.  The historical reality of these citrus towns throughout Orange County is described in depth in the book Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County by Gilbert Gonzalez.

Read this book!
In the 1920s, Fullerton High School Superintendent Louis Plummer partnered with the Fullerton School District and the Placentia Orange Growers Association to build "Mexican Schools" on or near these citrus towns.  They called this the "Americanization" program.  The main function was to teach the workers and their children English and practical skills for becoming a part of the dominant Anglo society.  The Americanization program is described in depth in Louis Plummer's fascinating book A History of the Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton Junior College 1893–1943.

One woman who taught at these segregated "Mexican Schools" was Arletta Kelly (born Arletta Klahn).  She was interviewed in 1971 for the California State University, Fullerton Oral History Program.  Her recollections give tremendous insight into the social context of race relations in Fullerton during this time period.  Kelly attended Fullerton Union High School and graduated from Fullerton College, and later worked as a teacher for FUHS for 34 years, from 1921-1954.  
From the 1925 FUHS yearbook
She met her husband, Frank Kelly (a Mexican man with an Anglo last name), while working as a teacher on the Pomona Camp, located on South Balcom in Fullerton, near the railroad tracks.  "I lived there in the teacher's house," she recalled, "I used to teach, of course, mainly Mexican men, but I did have a few Japanese men that would come.  I had a few Basque people from Bastanchury Ranch."

Her husband's father was taken captive during the Mexican Revolution around 1911.  Many Mexican Nationals fled Mexico during the Revolution, which the United States was deeply involved with.  Kelly, who had studied the Revolution on her own, described a great difference between how US and Mexican history books describe the Revolution.  Regarding the death of president Huerta, she said, "According to our (American) history books (Huerta died) of hepatitis or yellow jaundice.  But, according to the Mexican history books, no, he was poisoned by American agents…It depends on which side of the fence you are on the way you are going to see the picture."  According to Kelly, many of the Mexicans who entered America during the early part of the 20th century "didn't come here by choice.  They were persecuted by the Mexican government."  Unfortunately, their persecution would not end in the "land of opportunity."

In addition to teaching at the Pomona Camp, Kelly also taught at the Escondido Camp on the Bastanchury Ranch, near the present-day St. Jude Hospital.  "Those classes were mainly for women," she said, "In the daytime, I would go out there maybe twice a week and we'd have a class in English.  It was mainly simple English, like things that they would want to buy at the store."

Kelly also taught children at a public school on the Bastanchury Ranch.  "It was a branch of the elementary schools of Fullerton, and it was built down just about where the golf course is now," she said.  Although it served the workers of their groves and packing plants, "there was never any real cooperation with the Bastanchury Company for furnishing schools," Kelly recalled, "the Placentia Orange Growers Association furnished the building…but the teachers salary was paid by the high school district."

The Bastanchury School after it was moved to Ford School in 1934 and converted into a soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
A common misconception among Anglo society (including teachers) during this time period was that Mexicans were intellectually inferior to whites.  Kelly blames prejudice and unfair IQ tests for this misconception.  "Our IQ tests were never fair to Mexican students," she recalled, "It's like you ask the question, 'Why type of sweets is mostly favored by our people?…Well the Anglo would probably say apple pie, and the Mexican would say pan dulce."  Kelly describes her struggle to convince fellow colleagues that Mexican students had the same potential as whites.  "Some of my colleagues here would laugh at me and say, "Are you a wetback?"  she remembered.

Unfortunately, the Americanization program came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the great depression, when the entire Bastanchury Camp was deported to Mexico, to make room for whites who needed their jobs.  In the book Decade of BetrayalSouthern California community leader Lucas Lucio recalled that the entire Mexican colonia of 'the Bastanchury Ranch [in Fullerton] was repatriated.  They were very poor…went on the half fare of the Southern Pacific.'"  During the Great Depression, over 1 million Mexicans (many of them children and legal residents) were deported.

According to Druzilla Mackey, another teacher in the Mexican camp schools, “The American Community no longer spoke of ‘our’ Mexicans. They no longer considered that no ‘whiteman’ could pick oranges. Instead they felt that the jobs done so patiently by Mexicans for so many years should now be given to them. ‘Those’ Mexicans instead of ‘our’ Mexicans should ‘all be shipped right back to Mexico where they belong...And so, one morning we saw nine train-loads of our dear friends roll away back to the windowless, dirt-floor homes we had taught them to despise.”

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