Photos by Soren Sum.
In the wake of the deadly Charleston, South Carolina church shooting of black congregation members last year, the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board of Education created a committee tasked with recommending school names to replace that of Robert E. Lee Elementary School—named after Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee. The shooter’s proud display of the Confederate flag online only served to fuel a public outcry in the city.
The consensus? Renaming the school Olivia Nieto Herrera Elementary, after a Long Beach community activist who had close ties with civil rights activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
The LBUSD officially unveiled Olivia Nieto Herrera Elementary yesterday in a formal ceremony, with family members on hand to articulate her contributions to the Long Beach community.
Herrera Elementary principal Christi Granado opened the program by citing Herrera’s resilience and dedication to all those in need in the region.
“One of Olivia’s favorite sayings was: ‘You have to have a can-do attitude,’” said Granado during the opening. “That is exactly what every staff member reinforces to students at Herrera Elementary.”
This “can-do” attitude stemmed from her strong friendship with Chavez, according to Nieto Herrera’s third son Rafael Nieto, who said he worked closely with Chavez.
“I was part of [Chavez’] security detail and introduced him to my mom, which became a lifelong friendship,” said Rafael, the fourth youngest in a family of five in the Nieto family, who were all present during the ceremony. “[Like Chavez], she spent the bulk of her adult life trying to empower other people.”
According to the Historical Society of Long Beach (HSLB), Nieto Herrera worked closely with Chavez on a social service program that helped migrant farm workers. She was also the first Mexican American woman to run for Long Beach City Council and founded Central Shalom in 1977, where she provided support for disadvantaged families in the former Lee Elementary neighborhood.
Nieto Herrera also bridged the gap when tensions rose between the Latin American and Cambodian community in Long Beach, according to Rafael.
He said the elementary school’s name change reflected more diverse representation in the Long Beach community today, compared to the more Caucasian-dominated demographics that existed in the city’s earlier years. He also said the name change acknowledged slavery, which the historical figure Robert Lee had upheld, as a dark, problematic time in U.S. history, as opposed to its celebration.
“One of my older brothers would say Lee was a traitor,” Rafael told the Post. “I won’t go that far, but just say that he defended slavery. My mom was anti-slavery and she was here [in Long Beach] being anti-slavery. Renaming the school is a great thing. General Lee [was a] great historical figure, [but] had nothing to do with Long Beach.”
For Rafael and his siblings, their mother gave them inspiration. Inspiration that led Rafael down the path of education at the same school at which she studied: Cal State Long Beach (CSULB). He said obtaining an education was a significant achievement anyone can accomplish.
“[My mom] used to drag all five of us along [her studies] like it was a group effort,” said Rafael, reminiscing about his mother’s studies and guidance that inspired him to pursue film and television production. “I remember playing at Long Beach City College at the statue area and [she] would always remind us this is a school. It inspired me to want to go to college from a very early age.”
Rafael’s older sister, Amelia Nieto, also spoke during the ceremony. She talked about her mother’s legacy and the values instilled within the Nieto family. A portrait of Olivia Nieto Herrera was also showcased and donated to the school.
“Part of the reason why me and my siblings kept the Nieto part [of our name] is because the Nieto family has been [in Long Beach] since 1769,” said Rafael.
Other speakers included LBUSD Superintendent of Schools Christopher Steinhauser, who provided the introduction Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Brian Moskovitz, who offered the closing comments and LBUSD District 3 Board Member John McGinnis, who gave further praise about Olivia Nieto Herrera. Congressman Alan Lowenthal also made a surprise guest appearance and handed out an honor certificate to the school.
Fifth grader Yuki Ellefson, a student at Herrera Elementary, recited a poem for the occasion, followed by students and staff singing a “We Are The World” song, dedicated to Nieto Herrera.
“We are very honored to have a school named after someone who you can learn to emulate, be like, and do the kinds of things [Herrera] did to make us a stronger community,” said McGinnis to the audience.
Brian Moskovitz said that Olivia Nieto Herrera was just one of many other Long Beach schools to be renamed. Moskovitz cited Bobbie Smith Elementary, formerly Burnett Elementary, as another example of schools renamed by the school district renaming committee.
“I think it’s great when it’s appropriate and possible to bring in more diverse groups to represent our schools,” Moskovitz said. “It’s great for [the Long Beach] community and we think it’s really important whenever possible to allow students to have a role model, especially somebody from their community.”
“If [Nieto Herrera] can do it, I can do it,” Rafael said about his mother’s perseverance. “That was her whole thing. One of her favorite quotes was: ‘If you’re an American, you can become president if you want.’”
Posted by Long Beach Post on Thursday, November 3, 2016