When Sylvia Mendez was eight years old, she experienced firsthand what it feels like to be discriminated against for the color of one’s skin and surname. She never forgot that horrible feeling and grew up to become a symbol of Latino pride in the civil rights movement.
The Mendez family’s inspiring fight for justice and equality consolidated itself as the case we know today as Mendez v. Westminster.
They not only challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine, ending an era of “Mexican only” schools in California but paved the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education seven years later, which ended segregation in schools across America.
Since then, Sylvia’s family story — whose constitutional changing effect was overlooked for decades — has emerged as a necessary lesson in our history books.
In 2003 the writer and producer Sandra Robbie won an Emmy Award for the documentary Mendez v. Westminster: For all the Children/Para Todos Los Niños; in 2007, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her family’s honor, and in 2011 Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
Separate is never equal
In 1943, a tenant-farming family from Orange County wanted to enroll their daughter in the local elementary school. Little Sylvia was excited about her first day at a new school, but when she and her brothers were told that they couldn’t attend the 17th St. School in Westminster and that they had to attend the Mexican school instead, they were heartbroken.
Sylvia’s three cousins were accepted into the 17th St. School in Westminster because they were half-Mexican with fairer skin and a French surname. However, even though her cousins were admitted, they decided they would not go if their cousins couldn’t. Sylvia’s family realized that the school refused to register the Mendez siblings because they had darker complexions and a Spanish last name.
Mexican schools were initially created to “help” Spanish-language dominant children acculturate under a false “separate but equal” banner. But Sylvia was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. She and her family could not understand why the children of Mexican-American families were forced to attend a separate school.
When her parents weren’t able to get answers from the school board, her father, Gonzalo Mendez, got furious at the evidence that his children were the targets of xenophobia. He then hired Los Angeles lawyer David C. Marcus and paid him $500 to represent his family, as The Los Angeles Times recalls.
“I don’t remember much, except that we knew this was important for my dad,” said Sylvia Mendez to The Times. “I do remember going to court and sitting in a big chair when I testified. I had to testify, because [school authorities] said we didn’t speak English.”
Felicitas Mendez, Gonzalo Mendez’s wife, said that Garden Grove School District Superintendent James L. Kent wrote a thesis introduced by their lawyer in court during the trial. “It was terrible and racist,” said Sylvia’s mother, who was of Puerto Rican descent. “He said that Mexicans should be segregated like pigs in pigpens. He said Mexicans were filthy and had lice and all kinds of diseases.”
Along with four other Mexican-American families, Sylvia’s family filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 Mexican-American children against four Orange County school districts. They were backed by other organizations, including the NAACP and the Japanese American Citizens League, which led to their ultimate victory.
In 1946, the U.S. Federal District Court in Los Angeles sided with the plaintiffs. Soon afterward, the state legislature repealed school segregation laws aimed at Asian-American and Native American students. Seven years later, Brown v. Board ruled school segregation unconstitutional.
Thanks to the Mendez family and little Sylvia, who is now 84 years old, we have multicultural schools. After retiring from a career as a pediatric nurse, Sylvia has devoted her life to telling her family’s story.
In 2018, the Berkeley Unified School District voted unanimously to change the name of their school from LeConte Elementary to Sylvia Mendez Elementary School in honor of a Santa Ana-born, California school girl, who was once denied the right to education just because of the color of her skin.