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Carpinteria Latinx Arts Project spotlights history of school segregation in Santa Barbara County

Josephine Aliso School.jpg
Beth Thornton
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A short documentary film featuring students who attended Aliso School during segregation is part of the Latinx Arts Project.

Until 1947 California had segregated schools for Mexican American children in some agricultural parts of the state including Carpinteria. And now, on the 75th anniversary of desegregation, an organization in Carpinteria plans to create murals as a visual testimony to the students of Aliso School and the local Latinx community.

102-year-old Josephine Villegas was born and raised in the small city of Carpinteria, southeast of Santa Barbara. She attended Aliso School, a segregated elementary school (K-8) for Mexican American students, and her story is captured on film as part of the Carpinteria Latinx Arts Project.

The Latinx Arts Project was co-founded by long-time Carpinteria resident Suzanne Requejo. She said seventy-five years ago, the landmark case Mendez v. Westminster banned school segregation in California, and Aliso School integrated in 1947.

“Both of my parents and their siblings all attended Aliso School although they were American born, they still were required to attend the segregated school,” Requejo said.

She said the local high school was already integrated, but for Latinx students, the expectation was not for them to get a good education, but for them to pick fruit in the nearby lemon orchards.

Requejo, who works in education, said it’s heartbreaking for her to think about the lost academic opportunities for so many students. She said the new murals will include this painful history, but in a way that is healing and uplifting for the whole community.

Former Aliso School students.jpg
Beth Thornton
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Former students of the Aliso School in Carpinteria.

“Carpinteria has a very rich history stemming from the Chumash, and if we can include all of these cultures in our murals, I think that people will have a better sense of pride in the community and more of a sense of connection to our community,” she said.

Co-founder and Carpinteria resident, Leslie Westbrook, said she was shocked to learn that Aliso School was segregated for many years. She said the history isn’t widely known.

Westbrook said the goal for the Latinx Arts Project is to create three murals representing past, present, and future (Pasado | Presente | Futuro).

“Knowing that our community is 50% Latino, and much higher percentages in the schools, and that murals are such a wonderful output of the Mexican and Mexican American community, I felt that we should create something here in town that not only celebrated that, but that was created by Latino artists, hopefully,” Westbrook said.

Santa Barbara filmmaker Brent Winebrenner produced the video to introduce the mural project at Aliso School in June. The film includes interviews with a handful of students who attended the school during segregation or shortly thereafter.  

“I expected, given the nature of the subject of segregation of the school, that there would be some bitterness or resentment or some angst about their childhoods, and there wasn’t,” he said.

Winebrenner said the people in the film are about 80-102 years old and eager to share stories, especially about their children.

“They all showed up 75 years later with joy in their hearts and with full lives to look back on, so it was a very different outcome than what I expected,” he said.

Winebrenner said the 13-minute documentary has generated a lot of interest because the history is important for audiences beyond Carpinteria.

The Latinx Arts Project’s search for available space is underway, and they expect to issue a call for artists soon.

You can hear more about the mural project and see the film at the Latinx Arts Project event in Carpinteria on July 30, 2022. More information is at Latinxartsproject.org.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.