As a little girl in Westminster, California, in 1945, Sylvia Mendez aspired to attend the “beautiful school” with the “beautiful playground” where the school bus dropped her off each morning. But the 9-year-old girl was not allowed in this school because she was Mexican-American.
Instead, each day she walked past the school of her dreams and trudged towards the “Mexican school,” a dilapidated building next to a cow pasture. As she remembered, the conditions there were terrible. “All of our books and desks have been used and beaten up. The boys learned things to prepare them for a professional job, and we learned sewing and home economics. It was as if they were preparing us girls to be domestic servants. ”
When her parents took legal action against the school district’s segregation practices, she found herself in the center of Mendez v. Westminster School District in Orange County. The lawsuit helped end school segregation in California. It also paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education of the United States Supreme Court, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Yet most Americans, including many Latinos, are probably unaware of this groundbreaking affair.
Segregation of Mexican Americans from other students was common in the years leading up to the Mendez case, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, Mexico’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“The case is not on the curriculum of colleges, high schools, colleges or even many law schools,” he said. “It’s part of the unknown and unnoticed history of Latinos facing discrimination in the Southwest.”
Saenz noted that civil rights are often presented in this country as a black and white issue, “without acknowledging or acknowledging the parallel experiences of Mexican Americans and other Latinos.”
“It wasn’t just about me or our family”
Mendez, now 85, was in third grade when she and her brothers were refused entry to the neighborhood school and ordered to attend Mexican school. In response, his father, Gonzalo Mendez, recruited four other families to join him in the fight for their children’s right to a quality education.
“At the time, I didn’t really know what it was about,” Mendez told NBC News. “For me, they were fighting so that I could go to this beautiful, lovely school.”
As court proceedings dragged on, Mendez said, the school district offered her parents a compromise: if they dropped their lawsuit, she and her brothers could attend white school. But this deal was only offered to them and would leave other Mexican American students stuck in separate schools. The Mendez family refused.
The Mendez family won in federal court in 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick writing: “Social equality is of the utmost importance in the American public education system. It should be open to all children by unified school association, regardless of lineage.
Her parents won again in 1947, after the school district appealed.
“When we won again my mom, Felicitas, told me I had to be aware of what the deal meant,” Mendez said. “She explained that it wasn’t just about me or our family. It was not about the beautiful school. The fight was for all children to be treated equally.
Two months after Mendez’s appeal ended, California Governor Earl Warren signed legislation to officially end desegregation in public schools.
Mendez’s impact went beyond that. While the trial was still ongoing, attorney Thurgood Marshall submitted a memorandum on behalf of Mexican families on behalf of the NAACP. He then used Mendez’s legal framework to litigate Brown against Board of Education in the Supreme Court in 1954.
At that time, the chief justice was Earl Warren, who sided with Marshall and wrote the majority opinion ending segregation in public schools. In a sense, the Mendez case was a precursor to Brown, as it laid the groundwork for one of the most important court decisions in American history.
“A blow against inequalities”
On September 23, Sylvia Mendez will receive the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Medallion Award at the group’s annual gala. “Latinos were receiving a substandard education, and his case struck a blow against inequalities and changed the trajectory of the population,” said Marco A. Davis, president and CEO of the institute. The institute makes the virtual event free for anyone who registers.
Davis said the Mendez case is “an example of how Latinos opposed the established system and actually made a difference.”
“Despite the impact of his case on education and Latinos in the United States, a lot of people don’t know. They don’t know that Latinos, like African Americans, have ever attended separate schools.”
From a legal standpoint, Mendez was solved in an unusual way. Both sides stipulated and agreed that Mexican children should be considered white. This meant that the case was not about race discrimination; it was alleged intraracial discrimination, distinguishing it from other civil rights cases. “This stipulation partly prevented Mendez from becoming as prominent and well-known as Brown,” Saenz said.
‘A storyteller of this part of the story’
Yet the fact that Mendez is not widely known is troubling to some educators. “Too few in our community and in the country know that we have been championing education for so long,” wrote Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, in an email. “And not just for our own education, but for that of so many others as well.” Latinos have often not been included in American history, she explained, which obscures the community’s legacy of leadership and advocacy.
Decades after Mendez, states like Arizona and Texas attempted to ban or limit Mexican-American studies in public schools. This year, Republican lawmakers in nearly half of the states have sought to restrict the teaching of concepts such as historical racism or white privilege, sometimes under the broad concept of Critical Race Theory.
Failure to teach cases like Mendez leads to “a loss impact,” Santiago said. “These stories are important. You feel empowered and engaged when you can connect with the advocacy that came before you. Knowing that there were people who struggled and sacrificed on behalf of a larger group, knowing that Latinos are part of the country’s narrative, is powerful.
“Our community is not deficit-based,” she said. “This American dream, we believe in it, and we are fighting for it.”
In 2007, the Mendez case was commemorated on a US postage stamp, and in 2011, Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Reflecting on her parents’ legacy, Mendez said she never wanted to be a public figure. A retired nurse, she only became a lawyer after promising her mother that she would let people know about their hard-fought victory. “The awards and the honors, they are really for my parents and the families who brought the case and sought justice,” she said.
“I’m just the storyteller,” she added. “The main characters are my family and I’m so proud of them. But I just consider myself a storyteller of that part of the story that is not well known.
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