May 29, 2020
Editor’s note: This piece was assembled before “shelter in place” orders were given in Los Angeles County, and some of the archival objects were scanned at a lower resolution than is legible on this site. Once we regain access to our physical archives, these objects will be re-scanned and the low-resolution images will be replaced.
In 1944 Margarita Duran was a first-year student at UCLA when she began participating in a relatively new program called the Panel of Americans. Founded by the UCLA University Religious Conference in 1942, the program was envisioned as a group of students (all women at first, but eventually some men were included) of different ethnic and religious backgrounds that would travel to communities throughout California to deliver talks and take questions on diversity and tolerance.
Margarita’s experiences in the Panel of Americans is documented in the James and Margarita Mendez Papers in the CSRC Library’s special collections. Margarita grew up in multicultural Boyle Heights which, prior to World War II, had a large number of Jewish and Japanese residents in addition to the Latinx people who constitute the neighborhood’s majority today. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she witnessed the forcible removal of many of her Japanese American friends and neighbors, who were then incarcerated in makeshift concentration camps. After graduating from UCLA, Margarita married James Mendez in 1950, and she had a long and distinguished career as a social worker and community leader in Los Angeles’s Latinx community.
The goal of the Panel of Americans was to promote intergroup unity, but the program was launched in a cultural context of deep-seated prejudices that were often unacknowledged, as two items in the Mendez collection reveal. In the caption for the photograph shown below, five of the women are identified by characteristics of race/ethnicity and religious preference: “American Negro,” “Chinese-American,” “Roman Catholic,” “American of Mexican parentage,” and “American Jew.”
The sixth woman in the photo, Gwen (at the far right), has “no particular nationality, no established church,” which readers likely assumed meant white and Protestant—the baseline for “Americanness.” The organization may have decided that this description deracinated Gwen and Marilyn too thoroughly, since other documents about the panel presentations refer to the Gwens and Marilyns as “Protestant,” with their Anglo heritage taken for granted.
The young women made public appearances and gave presentations to school groups and civic organizations throughout Southern California. They also met with celebrities such as Paul Henreid (who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) and politicians such as Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron (who was an outspoken advocate of the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II). They even appeared on the radio.
The Panel of Americans, like virtually everything in the United States in 1944, was enlisted for the war effort, and its message of racial equality and collaboration was utilized in fundraising efforts. The United States government had a keen interest in burnishing the country’s image for its allies by representing the nation as a land of racial harmony. Through the Office of War Information and other propaganda outlets, the State Department framed the United States as the ideological opposite of Nazi Germany, despite segregation within the armed forces and institutionalized racism throughout the country.
Photographs in the collection document the Panel of Americans’ visits to several military bases in California. Although the message of equality and cooperation may have resonated with the servicemen, some may have been willing to sit through the lesson only because it was delivered by a group of attractive young women. Mexican Americans who were serving in the military were finding some equality with white Americans, but anti-Latino sentiment remained culturally entrenched. In Los Angeles, tension between whites and Mexican Americans erupted during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when attacks by gangs of white servicemen instigated ten days of violence against Mexican American youths who were wearing the flashy zoot suit.
One might expect that the panelists’ presentations centered on platitudes extolling the virtues of the American ideal while avoiding the systemic social injustices faced by many people. Margarita’s speech is surprisingly frank, though, in its description of the nation’s failings.
Margarita asserts that her Mexico-born mother “brought a culture with her that was much older than ours and which could only enrich our American one.” She wants her audience to know that her ethnic identity is not a limitation, but an expansion of her American identity, and that her difference is not something to be merely tolerated, but a positive benefit to be valorized and admired. She also talks about her father and grandfather, who were born in an area that had belonged to Mexico before the Mexican-American War, and she notes that their ancestors had been in America for “hundreds of years” and were “often . . . the first white men to step on American soil.” She is straightforward in her description of how the United States falls short of its ideals, and she warns that if it continues to do so, this “can only mar our record in the eyes of the world and bring doubt into the minds of our allies as to our sincerity.”
Margarita references a question that had been asked “at Camp Stoneman last week,” revealing that the speech was not a static essay that she recited at every stop on the tour. It was an evolving document, which she continued to craft. The question was about the US labor force, and it prompted her to write that “a country as wealthy as ours should be able to afford all its citizens decent wages.” This is a pertinent sentiment to this day, given the current attention to wealth disparity and prospects for a federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour. Margarita proposes that equal opportunity is an ethical imperative with practical implications, given the amount of labor needed to build up the nation after its wartime austerity.
The Panel of Americans continued into the postwar years and even expanded as groups of UCLA students began traveling across the country. In the 1950s it became a national organization with at least twenty branches at various universities. Though the organization has apparently disbanded, it is mentioned in a 1994 article as an ongoing group still advocating for equality—this time for gay youth.
Doug Johnson is the Archives Specialist at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. He was previously a processing archivist at UCLA Library Special Collections and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. He has a graduate degree in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and a BA in Religion from Williams College.
 The list of names in the the caption and the program are different because women would leave or join the panel at irregular intervals.
 See, for example, Justin Hart, “Making Democracy Safe for the World,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 1 (2004): 49–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2004.73.1.49.
 Though there are no documents from the 1940s explicitly mentioning participants’ physical appearance, a 1955 document specifies that panel members “must be attractive.” Unpublished manuscript, Box 82, Andrew Hamilton Papers (Collection 1227) Library Special Collections, Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
 Richard Griswold del Castillo, “Introduction,” in World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights, ed. Richard Grisworld del Castillo, 1 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).
 N’Tanya Lee, Don Murphy, Lisa North, and Juliet Ucelli, “Fighting for Inclusion: New York School Activists Build a Movement to Fight the Right and Add Gays and Lesbians to the Definition of ‘Multicultural,’” Third Force 2, no. 3 (1994): 10. https://search.proquest.com/docview/198723474?accountid=14512.