By Allison Beatty
The Social Justice Platica series was centered on the Mendez v. Westminster legal case of 1947 and the hidden contributions of women. The speaker was Dr. Nadine Bermudez, the Associate professor of Chicano/a Studies department and the director of the honors program at East Los Angeles College.
Bermudez asked the audience beforehand if anyone had ever heard of this case before. Less than a fourth of the audience, some of whom were left standing due to the shortage of seats, raised their hands.
Bermudez began by informing the audience of de jure and de facto segregation. De jure is segregation based on the law. De facto is segregation based on circumstances. This was crucial to understanding the Mendez v. Westminster case, as this was the case that legally ended segregation of Mexican children in public schools.
The conflict centred around what the superintendent of the El Modena School District, Harold Hammerstein, referred to as the “Mexican Problem.”
“Because of 1) social differences between the two races; 2) much higher percentage of contagious diseases; 3) much higher percentage of undesirable behavior characteristics; 4) much slower progress in school; and 5) much lower moral standards, it would seem best that Mexican children be Segregated.” (July, 1945)
This convinced enough people on the school board in 1947 to require children of Mexican descent to attend separate schools, on the grounds of the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine “separate but equal.”
The reasons for their separation included the low IQ of Mexican students, their inability to “speak American,” their inferior morals, they were poor, they were dirty, to protect them from “feelings of inferiority,” a lack of available space or supplies in the school and arguing that it was for the “good of the children.”
Bermudez asked the audience what they felt about hearing this. The responses were angry, disgusted, sad, frustrated, no one could believe that these were actual “legitimate” reasons given to justify the segregation of Mexican children only 70 years ago. The students in attendance were the ones with the most outrage, the adults had more somber reactions.
There were over 5,000 families involved that stood up for educational justice. Including Bermudez’s own family.
Bermudez shared a story of when she and her colleagues gathered information about the case in her kitchen while her grandmother watched novelas in the other room.
While talking it over, her grandmother said “No, that’s not what happened.” When she showed her grandmother the petition signed by all the families, showing all men names, her grandmother said “That’s your grandfather’s name, but I signed it.”
The women of the families were the ones doing the majority of the legal and fundamental work as it turns out. The mothers and wives were the ones who requested transfers for their children, who met with the school and the district, who wrote letters, wrote petitions, wrote speeches, and rallied the support of the community.