Hispanic Heritage Month: Sylvia Mendez

Posted by on Sep 30, 2021 in After the Fact

September 15 to October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to honor and recognize the history, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. This week btw takes a closer look at the life and legacy of Sylvia Mendez, a fighter for civil rights and a leader of school desegregation.

A Lesser-Known Story

You may have studied Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools in the United States. But have you ever heard of Mendez v. Westminster (1947)? This case desegregated the public schools in four school districts in Orange County, California, and later the entire state. This case helped establish the legal reasoning for the Brown decision seven years later.

the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The Mendez v. Westminster Supreme Court decision helped begin school desegregation.

When Sylvia Mendez, the oldest of three children in the Mendez family, was a child, California was segregated. Mexican Americans and white Americans had to attend separate parks, swimming pools, and restaurants. Public schools in the state were also segregated. All Mexican American children had to attend so-called “Mexican schools,” which lacked basic resources. Children in these schools were also forbidden to speak Spanish. Girls were trained for housekeeping, and boys for labor jobs, instead of being taught to read and write.

Sylvia’s parents felt this was wrong. When she was eight years old, together with four other families, they won a class-action lawsuit that desegregated the schools and made it so that Sylvia and her brothers could attend a formerly all-white school with better resources.

But the transition was not smooth. The districts integrated by putting all of the older children (both Mexican and white) together at one school, and all of the younger children (both Mexican and white) at the other. But the white parents were outraged that some of their children were now attending the former “Mexican” school, with its dirt floors and secondhand textbooks. So the superintendent shut the school down. The Mendez children also faced a lot of bullying from their white classmates. But their parents were firm: they had fought long and hard for this opportunity and would not give it up. So the Mendez children stayed in school.

A Living Legend

Decades later, when her father passed away and her mother became seriously ill, Mendez made it her life’s work to tell the story of her family and their important fight. After she retired from nursing, she travelled the country to help educate children about the impact that her parents had in changing the segregated schools in California. She also participated in a documentary that focused on the Mendez case. In 2000, a new high school in Santa Ana was named after her parents: the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School. Mendez also met with President George W. Bush during a celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month in 2004. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her ongoing work to make sure that all American children receive the same opportunities. And in 2018, the Berkeley Unified School District renamed one of its elementary schools in Sylvia Mendez’s honor.

Where is She Now?

Today, Sylvia Mendez is 85 years old. A retired pediatric nurse, she continues to visit schools around the country to talk about her experiences and share her family’s story. She says that she hopes to inspire Latino students, to show them that fighting for education has always been part of their story.

What Do You Think? Sylvia Mendez has said, “Mendez isn’t just about Mexicans. It’s about everybody coming together.” What do you think she means by this?