Ignacio Lopez

Ignacio Lopez

(1908-1973)

DJ Name: get LOpez

We don’t know about you, but we can almost smell the burgers on the grill already. We’re busting out our white pants, slathering on sunscreen (we’re pale, leave us alone until tan) and throwing on some shades because we’re officially at the unofficial start of summer: Memorial Day weekend, baby. Since 1868 we’ve celebrated Memorial Day as a way to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, but over time the late-May holiday has evolved to also indicate that school’s almost over for the summer and it’s time to open up the pools. 

But though we probably think of pools as a great way to splish splash around with our friends and tan our bods under the blazing sun rays amidst tons of strangers we’re nearly naked in front of, that wasn’t always the case. Public pools – along with many other recreational settings such as parks and playgrounds – have historically been battlegrounds for desegregation efforts.

So today, we’re going to tell you the story of Ignacio Lopez, a Spanish-language newspaper editor in San Bernardino, California, who led the charge in the mid-1900s to allow Mexican-American kids to cannonball on into public pools, too. This became an early catalyst for the Civil Rights movement, and the court case he filed would go on to be cited in Brown v. Board of Education

But first, he asks that you queue up this playlist – which we also think would go great with your MDW BBQ – before we take a trip back to sunny SoCal at the turn of the century.

Ignacio Lopez was born in Mexico in 1908, but he moved with his father across the border to Pomona, California, early on in life, so that his padre could start the Mexican Congregational Church there. Ignacio, or “Nacho” as his friends called him (no this is not a Historic Shuffle creative moment, it is in fact his real nickname), would go on to graduate from Pomona College in 1933. He also would go on to get – count ‘em – two (2) whole master’s degrees in history (ayy represent) and Spanish from UC Berkeley. In December of 1931, he put a ring on it and officially became a U.S. citizen.

Sometime before World War II, Ignacio began editing and publishing a newspaper called El Espectador, or, in Inglés, The Spectator, which served San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The news was written in Spanish, and, according to Ignacio, it was California’s largest Spanish-language weekly. During the war, his wife, Beatriz, began editing the newspaper, and the two used El Espectador to help organize assistance for the war effort and also keep readers informed about civil rights issues.

As World War II dawned, Ignacio took a job in the Office of War Information where he produced information that was sent out to South and Central America. He also served as a coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in Los Angeles. As World War II waned, he went back to his roots in Pomona, and later Ontario (alas, not the poutine-slinging city, but the one in California that’s east of LA).

Even before the war, Ignacio used El Espectador to publicize acts of discrimination against Mexican-Americans and he partnered with various Mexican-American organiations to advertise boycotts and protests that called attention to racism. In 1939, Ignacio shined the spotlight on Pedro Tucker, a Mexican-American who dared (gasp!) to sit in the middle aisle of a movie theater. Using the newspaper, and tag-teaming with three area Latino organizations, they successfully got tons of people in the community to boycott certain theaters in San Bernardino’s West End until the theater directors changed their policy and realized it was a sin-ema to discriminate against certain people.

Ignacio took his anti-racism efforts to the next level in 1944 when he filed suit against the city of San Bernardino and Mayor W.C. Seccombe for illegal discrimination in its parks and pools. Back in the 1940s, Latino kids couldn’t join their white playmates at city pools – that is, unless it was Sunday because certain pools opened up to everyone because that was when the pools were dirtiest. At one pool in particular, the Perris Hill Park pool, Latino kids were outright banned all the time. Of course, pools weren’t the only discriminatory spots – tons of businesses also had “whites only” signs in their windows.

Ignacio wasn’t one to doggy paddle away in the face of discrimination, so he decided to take this fight to the legal big (water) guns, filing a complaint that barring Latinos from pools and other city recreational facilities was illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment says that no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United State (AKA access to the local watering hole) nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or pool parties, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

After filing his complaint, Ignacio and 500 others attended a meeting in San Bernardino to come up with a plan to end discrimination against Latinos. They determined that the only way to do this was to band together and act as one because teamwork would make the dream work. 

With all that legal mumbo jumbo on their side and a united group, Ignacio went to court. After stating his case, he won and restored access to the deep end for some sharks and minnows and mermaids. This San Bernardino case didn’t just desegregate public pools. It also reached local parks and recreational facilities. 

This lawsuit gained Ignacio a spot on the summer swim edition of Sports Illustrated. Ok, maybe not. But the case’s ripples did lead to the waves that would follow as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. This case was cited in many proceedings such as Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka as it struck down separate but equal school systems. Inspired by his victory, Lopez published more articles in El Espectador that exposed discrimination. 

Lopez went on to found the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) which campaigned to get Latinos to run and be elected to local and state political offices. In 1972, he was appointed as the Mexican-American coordinator for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Nixon administration. Unfortunately, Ignacio’s life abruptly came to an end when he was stricken by a heart attack and passed away on July 4, 1973.

Ignacio Lopez and his local fight for the right of Latinos to have a pool day in the city of San Bernardino without discrimination had a national impact. Though his life ended too soon, Ignacio was an inspiration to many to just keep swimmin’ in the fight for equality. 

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