1940s segregation kept her out of the 'beautiful' school — until her family sued

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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.

Image: 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)
Image: 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.

Image: 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)
Image: 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.

Image: In 2007, the Mendez case was commemorated on a U.S postage stamp. (U.S. Postal Service)
Image: 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.”

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