Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Civil Rights Mural at CSUF

It's funny how, in the course of life, you can pass something every day for years and never really understand its meaning.  Here's an example.  I've been either a student or teacher at Cal State University, Fullerton for over a decade.  On the first floor of University Hall, home of the English Department (where I work), there is a giant mural painted by local Chicano artist Emigdio Vasquez.  The mural features various figures from civil rights movements in America.  Over the years, I'd never really paused to look carefully at the mural.  But lately I've been very interested in public art and civil rights, so yesterday I decided to take a closer look, and take a couple pictures.  

What disturbed me is that, here I am, a college professor, and I couldn't name several people in the mural, specifically the people who appeared Latino, Asian, or Native American.  WTF?  I thought.  I decided to try a social experiment, to see if it's just me that is horribly ignorant of American civil rights, or if it's a widespread phenomenon.

I posted the two pictures I took on Facebook, with the caption, "Can you name the civil rights icons in this mural by Emigdio Vasquez in University Hall at Cal State Fullerton?  Tag them!"  People very quickly tagged the well-known African American civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.  But what about the others?  They remained untagged.  One person tagged Native American Rights activist Dennis Banks as "Stephen Tyler."  My suspicions were confirmed.  The general public is tremendously uninformed about Latin American, Native American, and Asian American civil rights icons.  

With the help of my friend Ricardo, we tagged them all: Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, Larry Itliong, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, Bert Corona.  There are massive gaps in my education.   I understand this, and it disturbs me.  What can I do?  I can read more (and I am), I can watch films about Chicano and Native American Civil rights.  And I can help my students learn with me.

Today, we did this activity, to begin trying to fill in the gaps.  I projected the images of the mural in class and assigned pairs of students one civil rights figure from the mural.  Then, as a class, we walked down and physically looked at the mural.  Then, I asked each pair of students to use their smart phones to do some casual research about their civil rights figure, and together to write a page in which they answer these questions:  Who was he/she?  What did he/she contribute to the civil rights movements in America?

As my students worked on their assignment, I took pictures of several figures in the mural.  Below I have posted each image, along with brief write-ups written by my students.  Enjoy, and let's learn together!

"Bert" Corona

Humberto Noe "Bert" Corona was born on May 29, 1918 and died January 15, 2001.  Corona was born into a revolutionary family because his father joined Pancho Villa's forces during the Mexican Revolution.  Influenced by his father's involvement in Mexico's revolution, he began to fight for civil rights.  Concerned about the treatment of Mexican undocumented immigrants, he began his involvement in the National Association of Mexican Americans.  In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr invited Corona, along with Corky Gonzales and others to Atlanta for the March on Poverty.  King, however, was assassinated before the march took place.  Corona's organization played an important role in gaining amnesty for undocumented workers in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.  He taught Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge and Cal State LA.

Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales

Corky Gonzalez was born June 30, 1928.  He was a Mexican-American boxer and ultimately became one of the most important political activists for Chicanos.  Corky fought alongside Reies Lopez Tijerina, another Chicano political activist.  He wrote a poem called "I Am Joaqiun" which talked about all the oppression that his people have lived through over the years.  In this poem he defined Chicano as neither Mexican nor American, but a combination of all the conflicting identities.  He organized the Crusade for Justice, and organized the Denver Youth Conference, which focused on equal rights for students in schools.  He founded a private school that would focus on building student self-esteem through culturally relevant curriculum.  Corky Gonzales was known as "The Fist" of the Chicano movement.

Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez

Gonzalo Mendez was born in Mexico but resided in California since he was six years old.  He attended integrated public schools in the early 1920s.  He also served in World War II and he had become a U.S. citizen.  Gonzalo Mendez's wife was born in Puerto Rico and was also an American citizen.  They had three children who were all very fluent in English.  Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez moved their family from Santa Ana to Westminster and leased a 40 acre parcel from a Japanese American family who was going to lose the land because they were being sent to an Internment Camp.  In 1945, the Mendez family sent their children to Westminster Main High School, which was the same one Gonzalo went to.  When enrolling their children, the Mendez's were informed that their kids couldn't attend and had to go to a high school called Hoover which was located in a different school district.  The kids at Hoover were all Mexican or Mexican-American.  That's when the Mendez family decided to take charge and sue the Orange County School District for segregation.  The family teamed up with the United Latin American Citizens and sued four local schools for segregation.  The case resulted in the California legislature passing the Anderson Bill, a measure that repealed all California school codes mandating segregation.  The Mendez vs. Westminster victory was cited as a precedent for the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Dennis Banks

Dennis Banks is a Native American leader, teacher and civil rights activist.  He co-founfed the American Indian Movement, which seeks to protect the civil rights of native Americans living in urban areas.  Its goal is to eliminate discrimination  while still maintaining the native American traditions.  He also participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties which was used to bring attention to native American issues.  He was arrested and convicted of incitement to riot, but refused his terms of imprisonment and went into hiding.  Governor Jerry Brown gave Banks amnesty.  Actor Marlon Brando also gave him financial support.  Dennis Banks played a very big role in the American Indian civil rights movement.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta was an activist and labor leader.  She founded the Community Services Organization to improve social and economic conditions for farm workers, and to fight discrimination.  She created the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960 and co-founded (with Cesar Chavez) what would become the United Farm Workers.  Though she eventually stepped down from the UFW, she continues to work to improve the rights of workers, immigrants, and women.  Huerta was born in New Mexico but was raised in Stockton, California.  She became an elementary school teacher but saw many of her students work in the fields and farms so she decided to fight discrimination and improve farm conditions.  As an activist, she became a strong political figure in the civil rights movement for many Latinos.  She and Cesar Chavez were dynamic leaders whose speeches and negotiations were able to change many of the harsh conditions in the fields.  For all her efforts during her career and life, she received many honors such as the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award (in 1993) and the Eleanor Roosevelt award in 1998.  She was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

Larry Itliong

Larry Itliong was a Filipino labor rights movement activist.  He worked alongside Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, leading the Delano Grape Strike.  Born in Pangasinan, Phillipines he immigrated to the United States in 1929.  When he migrated to America he was only 15 years old, alongside 31,000 other Filinino immigrants.  He took an interest in labor rights because when he arrived the Filipinos were mostly isolated, mistreated, and poor.  By 1965, Itliong was residing in California's central valley.  He led the Central Agricultural Workers Orgaization Committee.  His committee led a strike against the Coachella Valley grape growers.  They were able to raise their wages but could not get a contract with the growers.  He served as director of the United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez.  In 1971, he had to resign due to disagreement about the union.  He died in 1977, at the age of 63.  In 2010, Cal State University Dominguez Hills honored him with a mural.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland.  He went to Frederick Douglass High School.  After high school, he earned a law degree at Howard University.  He began his civil rights involvement when he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP).  Out of 32 supreme court cases he argued, he won 29 of them.  His greatest achievement was the case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.  Some of his other notable successes were Smith vs. Allwright and Shelly vs. Kraemer.  In 1967, president Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the United States Supreme Court.  He was the first African American to serve as a supreme court justice.  He retired in 1991, and died two years later.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X, born May 19, 1925 as Malcolm Little, lived his life in a time when African Americans weren't treated equally.  His father was killed by white supremacists at a young age and his mother was put in a mental hospital when Malcolm was thirteen, leaving young Malcolm to reside in foster homes for the rest of his childhood.  His uncle was lynched and most other family members weren't around.  At age 20 he was sent to prison for breaking and entering.  In prison, he joined the Nation of Islam and upon his release emerged as a civil rights leader, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  His views evolved over time, and eventually he broke from the Nation of Islam, disavowing some of their more extremist views.  He was assassinated in 1965.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 to Librado and Juana Chavez in Yuma, Arizona.  He grew up to be a farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist.  Alongside Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.  Chavez was recognized for his aggressive but non-violent tactics and gained nation-wide support for farm workers' struggles.  Even after death, his influence has led to improvements in labor unions.  Chavez worked as a farm laborer until 1952, when he was recruited and trained by Fred Ross.  He encouraged Mexican-Americans to vote.  He was inspired by Filipino American farm workers who protested for higher wages.  He led his own peaceful protest of California grape growers.  The strike caught the U.S. Senate's attention, and prompted an investigation by Robert F. Kennedy.  He also boycotted the use of pesticides on grapes.  Chavez underwent a 25-day hunger strike for the boycott/strike, which was ultimately successful.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a pastor at his grandfather's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  Early in his life, he became a civil rights activist, and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  He helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott, which protested for equal rights on public buses.  He believed in non-violent peaceful protest and civil disobedience.  The bus boycott laster 382 days.  On december 21, 1956, blacks and whites rode the buses as equals.  During this boycott, he was arrested, his house was bombed, and he was subjected to much personal abuse, but he also gained a lot of respect and attention.  King traveled over six million miles and spoke over 2,500 times.  He also wrote five books.  One of the biggest protests King took part in was the March on Washington.  At the end of the March, he delivered his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," which lasted 17 minutes.  250,000 people attended the event, which eventually led to civil rights legislation.  He was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  He gave the money from the Nobel Prize to further the civil rights cause.  Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the eventing of April 9, 1968 on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  Overall, he was a highly-respected man who had a dream to end segregation and civil inequality.  To this day, we celebrate his boldness on January 15, which is his birthday.


  1. Philip Veracruz...not pictured.

  2. Yes, the image is of Philip Veracruz, no Larry Itliong.

  3. I am an English As A Seocnd Language Teacher and I think it is wonderful how you did this article!

  4. Gonzalo and Felicitas attempted to enroll their children into 17th Street Elementary (not Westminster Main High School) and were told they had to enroll their kids into Hoover Elementary. Sylvia Mendez (their daughter) was only 8 years old... not high school age. Both schools were also in the same school district: Westminster.

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