Sylvia Mendez explains journey fighting for education

By Paul Medina

Civil rights and education activist Sylvia Mendez returned to ELAC  on March 30 continuing to enlighten students as the latest speaker of the ELAC Racial Equity & Social Justice Town Hall series, since her last visit in 2014. The theme of the workshop was “Fighting for Racial Equity and Social Justice.” 

Mendez is best known as being the lead plaintiff in a landmark legal case known as Mendez v. Westminster.

The seminar was sponsored by ELAC President’s Office and the Women/Gender Studies program.

Mendez thanked ELAC’s audience for inviting her to share her story. “We have come a long way from Brown v. Board of Education. My dream is finally coming true, Mendez v. Westminster is being recognized for its historical impact it had on all of us. My goal is for it to be taught in all the schools,” Mendez said. 

Mendez said “Today an estimated 60 million Latinos live in the United States and about 43 million still speak Spanish. Although, Latinos are the largest ethnic minority at about 18%, anti-Latino discrimination is so common. Latinos still experience discrimination and it’s far from over.” 

In 1947, when racial segregation was lawful in schools nationwide, eight-year-old Mendez, and her parents Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, alongside five other Mexican families, sued the Westminster School District in Orange County, California.

The lawsuit alleged that the district practiced unfair educational opportunities for Hispanic students and violated the equal protection clause found under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

After Gonzalo Mendez found out that several cities built separate schools to educate non-white children, he hired a civil rights attorney named David Marcus to file a lawsuit to desegregate Westminster district schools, according to a United States Hispanic Leadership Award documentary on Sylvia Mendez.

Dr. Alberto Román praised Mendez on how her battle for school desegregation changed the course of history. 

Furthermore Román praised Mendez’s case for being the catalyst for change in inspiring Brown vs. Board of Education which ended segregation in public education. 

Mendez’s parents argued in court that being a student at Hoover Elementary was unconstitutional.

The Westminster school district policies at the time were that Hispanics attended the so-called ‘Mexican Schools,’ which were poorer schools located in the predominantly Mexican neighborhoods, according to an article by Dave Roos on

Meanwhile, White children attended the beautiful 17th Street Elementary School.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit court of appeals would eventually rule in a landmark decision in favor of Mendez and the five families. 

The case would be appealed, but by then Mendez had the backing of organizations such as the NAACP, LULAC, JACL, and WJC, which assisted in upholding the ruling, according to a United States Hispanic Leadership Award documentary on Sylvia Mendez.

ELAC Chicano Studies Professor Nadine Bermudez said to the audience, “The case changed my life and, whether you know it or not, it also changed your life.”

“I’ve spent almost 20 years studying the Mendez case. My family was involved in the Mendez case. We come from Westminster. If I were to sum up the case in a few words, it would be an idea of identity and love,” Bermudez said. 

Public schools were eventually desegregated in California. 

The case would serve as a catalyst and strong inspiration for the U.S. Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education which struck down racial segregation in public schools nationwide.  

The Brown case ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional and overruled portions of the controversial 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in the United States. 

Román said that the Mendez case “Shed light on the many social, economic, political and racial injustices that Mexican American families faced during those times.” 

In her later years, Mendez would go on to attend Orange Coast College, becoming a registered nurse for 33 years before retiring.

Mendez has been enshrined with many accolades including the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by Barack Obama in 2011, the renaming of a Berkeley public elementary school in her honor, a commemorative U.S. Postal Service Stamp and a planned 2-mile-long freedom trail and monument in Westminster.

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