By Maegan Ortiz
Recipient of the 2011 Medal of Freedom Sylvia Mendez and other women involved in a landmark segregation case spoke about the importance of community action on March 4.
The event gave the history and personal accounts of the struggle against segregation of Mexican Americans in the Orange County public school system.
Speaking at ELAC was a homecoming to Mendez, having taken classes at ELAC in 1975. She was only a child when the case was decided, but she remembers her mother from her deathbed telling her that no one knows about this case.
Mendez’s father was one of the plaintiffs in the 1946 Mendez, et al v. Westminster case.
Mendez noted that her younger sister only learned about the case in a Chicano/a Studies class.
She recalled as a child wanting to attend the white school because they had a better playground complete with monkey bars.
When she was finally able to play, she remembers being confronted by a white student who told her, “You’re a Mexican. You don’t even belong here. You shouldn’t even be in this school.”
Mendez did not want to return to school but did at the urging of her mother.
“My mother said, ‘don’t you know what is happening? We have been fighting for you and for all the children, so that you can all have a good education,’” Mendez remembered.
Mendez continues that legacy.
“I am here to encourage you to stay in school, to persevere and to keep on working for your goals, “ Mendez said.
“If our parents could make change, then so can you,” Mendez said.
The case is important because it pre-dates the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which overturned the legal segregation of children by race in the United States.
Nadine Bermudez, assistant professor of Chicano/a Studies, opened the event by giving a brief overview of the 1946 case. Mexican and Mexican-American parents sued the school district over their children attending segregated schools.
The focus of the presentation was less on the court case itself and more about the community of women who banded together.
The Mendez 1946 case names five families – Estrada, Guzman, Mendez, Palomino and Ramirez – but it was a class action lawsuit which represented 5,000 families.
“They did not have Twitter or Facebook so they pulled from their sense of community,”Bermudez said.
Through a slideshow of primary documents including photographs, Bermudez demonstrated that the segregation, creating separate schools for white children and children of Mexican descent children, was based on stereotypes.
Isabel Ruiz Ayala, who testified in the original court case, remembered her sisters being denied enrollment in a white school just blocks from where the family lived.
“Well you are Mexican…Mexicans don’t speak English,” Ayala said the principal told her.
When Ayala pointed out that her entire family spoke English, the principal listed other reasons that denied enrollment.
“Mexicans aren’t clean. They have bad hygiene,” she was told.
Ayala was forced to enroll her sisters in the segregated “Mexican” school, which was a two and a half mile walk from the family home.
“I want students to think about how devastating that is, to be told those things because of your ethnicity,” Ayala said.
While it was the fathers of the children who were officially named as plaintiffs in the case, “I started to realize there was a backstory. That is, was it the women who were taking the children the school and questioning the teachers or going to the PTA meetings, raising their hands and asking questions? They were in charge of the childrearing…Those are the stories that need to be told,” Bermudez said.
According to Bermudez, the families involved in Mendez focused less on the ethnic stereotypes and more on the general themes of democracy, access to quality education and protection from discrimination.
“It’s very American. It’s about democracy,” Bermudez said.
While the case focused strictly on school desegregation, the case had wider implications, “They weren’t asking just for their children, they were indirectly asking about themselves,” Bermudez said.
“What motivated these women? Love. Love for themselves, their children, love for their community and love for their country,” Bermudez said.
Bermudez’s passion for the Mendez et al is personal, political, and professional. The case is the subject of her dissertation, but her family was also personally involved in the case.
Her aunts, Terri Salinas and Jennie Acosta, were students at the Hoover “Mexican” school when the Mendez et al case was decided.
“We weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in the schoolyard or anywhere and when we did we had our pigtails pulled or we were pinched by a teacher, ” Salinas said.
The event excited and inspired ELAC students. Chicano/a Studies student Andrea Luna recalled discussing the event with friends afterwards.
“I’m so excited about what I learned today. I’m going to tell my whole family about it,” Luna said.