Recently, Judith Valles, 89, the first Hispanic mayor of San Bernardino and retired president of Golden West College, sat down with Inland Empire Community News and KVCR to detail her family’s experience with segregation at the infamous Perris Hill Plunge and a local cemetery.
Valles, born in 1933, is a San Bernardino Valley College Hall of Fame inductee and author of “As My Mother Would Say: Como Decia Mi Mama,” didn’t achieve this level of success overnight or without a fight through segregation.
“I was raised in an eight-parent family with four brothers and four sisters. My parents were proud Hispanics, but my family endured much suffering in the 1940s,” said Valles.
She said when she was nine years old, her older brother, serving in the U.S. Air Force, was killed during a WWll training accident in 1942. The following experiences were some of her first remembrances of segregation and discrimination.
“My brother’s body was flown home, and my father went to the cemetery to arrange his burial; everything was set. The next day my mother went to select a casket, and the employee asked, ‘Are you Mexican?’ and my mother said, ‘Si Senor.’ My mother was told that Mexicans could not be buried there, that Mexicans and Negros have to be buried behind the hedge,” continued Valles.
Valles’ father was beyond reasonably upset, and her brother’s body ended up in her family’s living room for a few days.
“My father said, ‘We’re not going to bury him, and he took my brother’s body home. I was nine years old, and I remember in our living room, there was his casket. So my father contacted the congressman, and the congressman made arrangements to have my brother’s body flown to Arlington Cemetery in Washington. My mother started crying, saying, ‘I want my son buried here so I can go visit him,'” Valles said.
With the help of congress and attorneys, Valles’ brother ended up being buried in the San Bernardino cemetery where her mother wanted him.
“My father insisted, and my brother integrated the cemetery. So that was a big deal,” said Valles.
Also in the 1940s, when the Lopez V. Seccombe case was filed, her older brother Mike went to the infamous Perris Hill Plunge with an Italian friend. The Italian friend was let in, but her brother was not – because he was Mexican.
“So they went to the plunge, and at the gate, they let Mike’s Italian friend in, and they asked my brother, ‘Are you Mexican?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ They said sorry, Mexicans can only swim on Fridays – the day before they emptied the pool. So he watched his buddy swim,” continued Valles.
She said that when her brother returned home, he explained what had happened to their father, and her father was livid.
“My father was furious. So he contacted some attorneys, and we integrated the pool at the Perris Hill Plunge, which explains why when I became mayor, I ensured that we had a swimming pool and a plunge on the westside at Nunez Park. That was a community attribution I knew I had to accomplish,” Valles said.
Valles said that many people didn’t realize how bad segregation and discrimination were back in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
“It took people like my father to create change, and I didn’t appreciate him then. Sometimes I’d be embarrassed because he was such a fighter, but now I look back, and I say it’s great that somebody did that,” Valles said.
When asked how she thinks her parents would react to finding out that their daughter became the first Hispanic mayor in the city of San Bernardino, she said they’d be proud.
“I would often think about how proud my parents would be to know that I became the city’s first Hispanic mayor when they endured so much discrimination because of our ethnicity. I used to look up and think, ‘I hope they can see this now,'” concluded Valles.