Monday, May 2, 2011

Tempe Beach Park

Tempe Beach Park segregated pool facility, circa 1943 (photo courtesy of Tempe HIstorical Museum)

Tempe Beach Park Splash Playground, April 2011 (photo by Katelain Saunders)
602 S. Mill Avenue Tempe, AZ 85281
Tempe Beach Park located in the Heart of downtown Tempe has been a major gathering place for the community of Tempe since its development.  Today it is a cultural venue for concerts and events as well as a recreational haven for joggers, bikers, picnic goers and any one in between. In the early 1920’s Tempe Beach Park was the new central gathering place for recreation and fun for the community of Tempe. Much different than the park we see today the original Tempe beach park consisted of Arizona’s first Olympic size swimming pool, a base ball diamond, and a bath house and bleachers and later an open air movie theater. A great escape from the intense Arizona summer heat the public swimming pool quickly became a much welcome public recreation venue.
However like many public spaces throughout the United States in the early 20th century not all citizens enjoyed the privileges of using the swimming pool facilities at Tempe Beach Park. At a time when Jim Crow segregation and discrimination was prevalent throughout the United States particularly the American South, Mexican American citizens in the southwest were victims of this discrimination and segregation. When the public pool at Tempe Beach Park opened in 1923 the Mexican American citizens of Tempe were not allowed to use the facilities. Although there were no outward signs explicitly stating that Mexicans were not allowed in the pool many were turned away at the entrance and there was a general knowledge and understanding that Mexicans and Mexican Americans were not welcome there.  In the early 20th century there were “twenty one states that permitted or required segregation in various activities, the statues dealing with segregated recreational facilities did not form any pattern... This form of segregation was “almost uniform practice of the southern states… the compulsion [was] most frequently affected by state regulation of a non statutory nature, by local ordinance, and by prevailing custom” (McKay, 701).
Ms. Irene Gomez Hormell a resident of Tempe remembers the discriminatory practices employed by the Tempe Beach Park Pool against herself and other Mexican Americans, “Tempe Beach was only on Wednesdays we could go swimming, because the water was dirty and they were ready to- that was the day that they had dirty water, so it didn’t matter whether out skin was going to get that dirty, I guess, the water dirty.” (museum exhibit)
Other firsthand reports mentioned experiences of lighter skin Mexicans and Mexican Americans gaining entrance to the pool while they were not accompanied by darker skinned friends or family members. If they were seen with their darker skin friends they would not be admitted again, because then it was known that they too were Mexican/Mexican American. The experience of “passing” for white was one that was shared by light skinned African American minority members in light of Jim Crow segregation and discriminatory laws and practices such as the “one drop” rule that gave privilege to Anglo Americans by law and made any person with any amount of African Heritage a second class citizen in the United States. Those who were able to pass for white could escape out ward forms of discrimination while having to endure seeing discrimination towards other members of their community without the liberty to say anything. Similarly in the Mexican American population in the United States myths surrounding a Spanish identity and heritage arose to protect themselves from Anglo discrimination.  The “Spanish myth” historically was used by Anglos to obscure the Mexican heritage of the Southwest… the myth essentially praised the Spanish who explored, conquered, and settled in what became the Southwestern United States. Anglo enthusiasm for things Spanish encouraged some Mexicans to claim Spanish ancestry to avoid Anglo discrimination…Anglos understood Spaniards to be white and native to the region, while denigrating Mexicans as non-white immigrants”(Rodriguez).
Upon returning from battle in World War II Mexican American war veterans were angered by the segregation of the Tempe Beach Park Pool and decided to take action to force the city to desegregate the pool. The idea shared by many veterans of color returning from war was how, if they were allowed to sacrifice so much for their country could they not be allowed to swim in the public pool? Led by actions by individuals like Danny Rodriguez who “after military service returned to Tempe to make the segregated swimming pool open to the public”, returning veterans demanded changes in the segregated community they lived in. Their first success was in 1946 when Hispanic families were allowed to swim at the Tempe Beach pool.
In 1946 the Tempe Beach Board revoked the “No Mexicans” policy. Mexican American families could enjoy the recreational facilities along with their Anglo neighbors as long as they complied with the rules of the “3 C’s” 1. Clean Skin. 2. Clean Conduct. 3. Clean speech and in English.
Although in theory the pool no longer practiced discrimination, the English only rules and the cleanliness rules still rang of prejudice ideas and prejudice expectations that Anglo community members had for their Mexican American neighbors in behavior and hygiene.
After a series of transformations throughout the years Tempe Beach Park today still attracts kids to play in the water at the splash park located where the old pool used to be. The park still serves as a community gathering space and has throughout its transformation served as a center for culture and recreation. Thanks to the efforts of brave members of the community years ago who stood up in the face of injustice the park now holds a legacy of community fun for generations to come.

-By Katelain Saunders and Laura Tamez


McKay Robert B. “Segregation and Public Recreation”. Virginia Law ReviewVol. 40, No. 6
(Oct., 1954), pp. 697-731 Virginia Law Review

Rodriguez Joseph A. “Becoming Latinos: Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and the Spanish Myth
in the Urban Southwest”.The Western Historical QuarterlyVol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 165-185 Western Historical Quarterly, Utah State University on behalf of The Western History Association.

“Tempe Beach Park.” Tempe Historical Museum. 809 E. Southern Ave. Tempe, AZ 85282. Research Library, April 22, 2011.

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