A Latino family paved the way for school desegregation. It's still 'unknown' history.

The case of Mendez v. Westminster is not part of schools' or most law schools' studies, part of the "unremarked history of Latinos facing discrimination in the Southwest," says legal advocate Thomas A. Saenz.

As a little girl in Westminster, California, in 1945, Sylvia Mendez yearned to attend the “beautiful school” with the “nice playground” where the school bus deposited her every morning. But the 9-year-old wasn’t allowed in that school — because she was Mexican American.

Instead, each day she walked past her dream school and trudged over to the “Mexican school,” a rundown building next to a cow pasture. As she recalled, the conditions there were terrible. “All of our books and desks were used and beat up. Boys learned stuff to prepare them for vocational work, and we learned sewing and home economics. It was like they were preparing us, the girls, to become maids.” 

When her parents mounted a legal challenge to the school district’s segregation practices, she found herself at the center of Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County. The lawsuit helped bring about the end of school segregation in California. It also paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, which found segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Yet most Americans — including many Latinos — are likely unfamiliar with this groundbreaking case. 

The segregation of Mexican Americans from other students was common in the years before the Mendez case, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Schoolchildren eat hot school lunches made up primarily of food from the surplus commodities program at a school in Peñasco, N.M., in December 1941. USDA

“The case is not part of the curriculum in middle schools, in high schools, colleges, or even in many law schools,” he said. “It is part of the unknown, unremarked history of Latinos facing discrimination in the Southwest.”

Saenz noted that civil rights are often framed in this country as a Black and white issue, “without recognition or acknowledgment of the parallel experiences of Mexican Americans and other Latinos.”

‘It wasn’t just about me or our family’

Mendez, now 85, was a third grader when she and her brothers were turned away from registering at the school in the neighborhood and told to go to the Mexican school. In response, her father, Gonzalo Mendez, recruited four other families to join him in fighting for their children’s right to a quality education.

“Back then, I didn’t really know what it was all about,” Mendez told NBC News. “To me, they were fighting so I could go to that nice, pretty school.”

As the legal proceedings dragged on, Mendez said, the school district offered her parents a compromise: if they dropped their lawsuit, she and her brothers could attend the white school. But this deal was offered only to them and would leave the other Mexican American students stuck in the segregated schools. The Mendez family refused.

The Mendez family won in federal court in 1946, with Judge Paul J. McCormick writing, “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

Her parents won again in 1947, after the school district mounted an appeal.

“When we won again, my mother, Felicitas, told me I had to be aware of what the case meant,” Mendez said. “She explained, it wasn’t just about me or our family. It wasn’t about the beautiful school. The fight was so that all the kids would be treated equally.”

Two months after the Mendez appeal was over, California Gov. Earl Warren signed legislation to officially end desegregation in public schools.

The impact of Mendez went further than that. When the lawsuit was still pending, attorney Thurgood Marshall submitted a brief in support of the Mexican families, on behalf of the NAACP. He later used the legal framework from Mendez to argue Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court in 1954.

By then, 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 consequential court decisions in American history.

‘A blow against inequity’

On Sept. 23, Sylvia Mendez will receive the medallion award from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute at the group’s annual awards gala. “Latinos were receiving a substandard education, and her case struck a blow against inequity and changed the trajectory of the population,” Marco A. Davis, institute president and CEO, said. The institute is making the virtual event free to anyone who registers.

Davis said the Mendez case is “an example of where Latinos stood up against the established system and actually changed things.”

“Despite the impact her case had on education and Latinos in the U.S., many people don’t know about it They don’t know that Latinos, like African Americans, once attended segregated schools.”

From a legal standpoint, Mendez was resolved in an unusual way. Both sides stipulated and agreed that the Mexican children were to be considered white. This meant that the case was not about interracial discrimination; it was about alleged intraracial discrimination, setting it apart from other civil rights cases. “That stipulation, in part, prevented Mendez from becoming as significant and well-known as Brown,” Saenz said.

‘A storyteller of this part of history’

Still, the fact that Mendez is not widely known is troubling to some educators. “Too few in our community and in the nation know that we have been education advocates for so long,” Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, wrote 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.

President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Medal of Freedom to civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez at the White House on Feb. 15, 2011.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

Decades after Mendez, states such as Arizona and Texas have attempted to ban or limit Mexican American studies in public schools.  This year, Republican lawmakers in nearly half of the states have sought to curtail the teaching of concepts such as historical racism or white privilege, at times under the blanket concept of critical race theory.

Not teaching about cases like Mendez leads to “a loss impact,” Santiago said. “These stories are important. You feel empowered and engaged when you can connect to the advocacy that came before you. To know that there were people who struggled and sacrificed on behalf of a larger group, to know that Latinos are part of the country’s narrative, that is powerful.”

“Our community is not deficit-based,” she said. “This American dream, we believe in it, and we fight for it.” 

In 2007, the Mendez case was commemorated on a U.S postage stamp, and in 2011 Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2007, the Mendez case was commemorated on a U.S postage stamp.U.S. Postal Service

Reflecting on her parents’ legacy, Mendez said she never set out to be a public figure. A retired nurse, she became an advocate only after promising her mother that she would let people know about their hard-fought victory. “The awards and honors, they are really for my parents and the families that brought the case and pursued justice,” she said.

“I am just the storyteller,” she added. “The main characters happen to be my family, and I am so proud of them. But I just consider myself a storyteller of this part of history that is not well-known.”

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related


Elon Musk vs Jeff Bezos: Who wins the battle of the billionaires (and their super egos)?

(Composite) Jeff Bezos has some catching up to do. After three unchallenged years as the richest person in the world, the Amazon boss has fallen even further behind the man ... Read more »

Scarier than Squid Game? 13 chilling Korean horror movies for Halloween, from classics Old Boy and The Wailing to cult faves The Call and A Tale of Two Sisters

With Halloween just around the corner and the recent release of chilling hit K-dramas like Squid Game and My Name, we’ve been hankering after other spooky, seasonally appropriate content. Thankfully, ... Read more »

Jury awards $10M to former exec who said he was fired because he is white male

David Duvall had claimed that he was fired without cause as the company sought to promote diversity, which Novant Health denies. Read more »

Great British Bake Off's George slams hateful comments by viewers in statement

The Great British Bake Off star George Aristidou has released a statement to hit back at vicious trolls after he was bombarded with nasty comments. George, 34, took to social ... Read more »

Holly Willoughby reveals This Morning will make history in Halloween special

Holly Willoughby has revealed that This Morning will make history today (Thursday) as she dresses up for a Halloween special. The blonde beauty, 40, has previously donned outfits such as ... Read more »

How halva, baklava and Turkish delight were baked into Chinese cuisine centuries ago, and the mooncake's Arabian cousin

Travellers with a sweet tooth crossing southern Europe, the Middle East and China would probably be surprised to find they’re eating treats along the way which share a common heritage. ... Read more »

American Airlines flight diverted after passenger assaults attendant, airline says

American Airlines said a flight attendant was physically assaulted Wednesday by a passenger during a flight from New York to California. Read more »

What to look out for before buying Intel's 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs

Intel‘s 12th Gen Alder Lake i9 and i5 CPUs (Photo: Yahoo Gaming SEA) Well, the cat is out of the bag. Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake processors are official and ... Read more »

Facebooks Krypto-Wallet Novi geht erstmals an den Start

Lange Zeit war es still um Facebooks Kryptowährungsprojekt Diem und das dazugehörige Cyber-Wallet Novi. Nun gab Novi jedoch bekannt, ein Pilotprojekt in den USA und Guatemala zu starten. © Bereitgestellt ... Read more »

17-year-old arrested for threatening Cameron High School on social media: police

A 17-year-old student of Cameron High School has been arrested after posting a threatening message on social media, according to police. The Cameron Police Department said Wednesday they were first ... Read more »

Donald Trump loses bid to keep lawsuit against Twitter in Florida

Former United States President Donald Trump (Image: AP Photo/John Raoux) Former U.S. President Donald Trump cannot fight his suspension from Twitter in a Florida federal court, but instead must abide ... Read more »

Kentucky principal investigated after getting lap dance at homecoming event

Hazard High School principal Donald Mobelini has come under fire for acting inappropriately with students at a homecoming event. City of Hazard A Kentucky school district is investigating after a ... Read more »

Ozark's Ruth Langmore star's heartfelt goodbye leaves fans 'in tears'

Fans of hit Netflix show Ozark left fans feeling very emotional after her farewell message ahead of the final series of the drama. Ozark fans were left devastated by the ... Read more »

Felony charge dropped for man who underpaid 43 cents for Mountain Dew

Joseph Sobolewski was jailed for seven days on the felony theft charge. Read more »

US issues first gender-neutral 'X' passport

The United States has issued its first gender-neutral passport, featuring an "X" gender designation. Read more »

House Judiciary Republicans launch probe into National School Boards Association communications with DOJ

Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday requested the assistance of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for their probe into what they called “troubling attempts” by the ... Read more »

Virginia woman says FBI staked out school board meeting

Stacy Langton said federal agents infiltrated her local school board meeting. YouTube A Virginia mother said federal agents infiltrated her local school board meeting after she and other parents protested ... Read more »

Cheap antidepressant shows promise treating early Covid

The $4 pill, called fluvoxamine, reduced the need for hospitalization among high-risk adults, according researchers. Read more »

Los recientes resultados financieros de Facebook pronostican un crecimiento más lento y con más obstáculos

© Unsplash. Facebook tendrá más dificultades en sus próximos resultados financieros. Facebook anunció sus resultados financieros trimestrales al cierre de operaciones bursátiles el lunes. La compañía superó las estimaciones, pero ... Read more »

Kate Hudson flaunts toned abs in Breast Cancer Awareness Month photo

Looking for more celebrity and entertainment news? Sign up for Yahoo Lifestyle Canada’s newsletter! Kate Hudson is stripping down for a great cause. The 42-year-old actress took to Instagram on ... Read more »

Nor'easter Rains Bring Flooding to Upstate New York

Heavy rain caused flooding in Marcellus, New York, on October 26, as the National Weather Service issued flash-flood warnings for areas in the Finger Lakes region. Rain brought by a ... Read more »

Tribes push back against MLB claims that Native Americans approve of tomahawk chop

The commissioner insisted that the gesture by Atlanta Braves fans is OK with local Indigenous communities. Read more »

Ancelotti: “Nos falta presencia en el área”

© AFP7 vía Europa Press (Europa Press) Carlo Ancelotti, comiendo chicle durante el partido contra Osasuna. El partido en el Bernabéu arrancó al ritmo del Riau-Riau, la marcha sanferminera que ... Read more »

Fighting climate change is a $150 trillion battle: Bank of America report

A recent Bank of America (BAC) Global Research Report found that, within a 30-year period, global carbon emissions could reach zero at a cost of $5 trillion per year. The ... Read more »

Hotel cancels Charlie Kirk event after threats of 'damage or disruption': Report

An Oregon hotel refused to host a Turning Point USA event featuring the organization’s founder, Charlie Kirk, following apparent threats from “multiple organizations,” according to a new report. © Provided ... Read more »

3rd person dies of injuries from Texas drag racing crash

KERRVILLE, Texas (AP) — A third person injured when a drag racer veered into a crowd and crashed during a racing event in Central Texas has died, police said Wednesday. ... Read more »

WR Brandin Cooks angered by Texans' trade of Mark Ingram

With a 1-6 record, the Texans have started to deal off some veterans…and it sounds like one of their locker room leaders is unhappy about the direction of the squad. ... Read more »

Legendary Ducati racer Paul Smart dies in motorbike crash

Legendary Ducati racer Paul Smart has died following a motorbike crash earlier today aged 78. Smart was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest ever racers, and was best known for ... Read more »

Martine St-Victor: Women's soccer merits a level playing field

Fùtbol, football, soccer. Regardless of the term you fancy, the sport remains the beautiful game, as it is also affectionately called. The origin of the expression remains the subject of ... Read more »

Martine St-Victor: Women's soccer deserves a level playing field

Fùtbol, football, soccer. Regardless of the term you fancy, the sport remains the beautiful game, as it is also affectionately called. The origin of the expression remains the subject of ... Read more »

Texas lawmaker says 850 books ranging from race to sexuality could cause 'discomfort'

Teachers union fires back: “What will Rep. Krause propose next? Burning books he and a handful of parents find objectionable?" Read more »

Bill Murray Hints He Appears In Marvel's ‘Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania'

According to a German newspaper and Google Translate, Bill Murray may be taking his superpowers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In an interview with the reputable German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, ... Read more »

Rittenhouse judge in spotlight after disallowing word 'victims' in courtroom

While Kenosha County Judge Bruce Schroeder may set boundaries for the language in his court, his decision sets the stage for more scrutiny, legal experts say. Read more »

Marcus Rashford apologises to Man Utd fans after being left lost for words by Liverpool

Marcus Rashford has issued a delayed apology to Manchester United fans following their humbling defeat by Liverpool on Sunday. The Red Devils went down 5-0 to their fiercest rivals at ... Read more »

Court halts executions of John Marion Grant, Julius Jones in Oklahoma

The decision follows prisoners' lawsuit over the drug midazolam, which has been used in several high-profile and problematic executions. Read more »

Tributes pour in as legendary Scotland prop Sandy Carmichael dies

Former Scotland and Lions international player Sandy Carmichael has died at the age of 77. Carmichael is regarded as one of the true greats in Scottish rugby, having enjoyed a ... Read more »

Facebook sat by as Trump set off wave of hate speech, memos show

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. In June 2020, as George Floyd protests convulsed the country, then-president Trump wrote in a Facebook post, ‘when the looting starts, ... Read more »

Trump mocked for being reduced to writing letter to editor in Wall Street Journal to rant about election

© Reuters ‘There is a tendency today to believe that something is revolutionary, that boundaries are being tested. Not so, where frauds are concerned’ – Reuters The Wall Street Journal ... Read more »

Head of consumer protection watchdog signals stance on digital assets with warning on stablecoins

© Getty/Tom Williams Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Getty/Tom Williams Stablecoins bear a risk to the financial system, said the head of the US Consumer Financial ... Read more »
On free-english-test.com you will find lots of free English exam practice materials to help you improve your English skills: grammar, listening, reading, writing, ielts, toeic