Civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez gave four speeches in Berkeley to honor the 70-year anniversary of her family’s historic 1947 Mendez v. Westminster court case Thursday.
Mendez, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, spoke at Thousand Oaks Library, Longfellow Middle School and the UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research about her role in integrating schools in California and her work for the Latinx community in public education today. Mendez v. Westminster desegregated public schools in Orange County. Soon after, former California governor Earl Warren signed a bill desegregating schools in California, making it the first state to integrate schools.
For the past 22 years, Mendez has been going to schools across the country to speak to students and teachers about her journey. She said she has found that today, schools are more segregated than ever.
“If parents can’t move out of ghettos and barrios, (their children) can’t go to the white, ‘good’ schools,” Mendez said during the event.
Mendez said she is fighting to make sure Latinx and low-income students at de facto segregated schools get the same education and resources as students from schools in wealthier communities.
The Mendez family lived in a Mexican neighborhood in Santa Ana then moved to an Anglo neighborhood in Westminster to tend a farm they rented from the Munemitsus, a Japanese-American family who had been sent to an internment camp.
There were only two schools in Westminster at the time: 17th Street Elementary, an all-white school, and Hoover Elementary, the Mexican school.
Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia Mendez’s father, asked his sister to enroll his three children at 17th Street Elementary. When his sister went to the school, the children were denied enrollment because of their Mexican heritage.
Mendez said the Hoover Elementary had broken electricity and no playground. The school was next to a farm that kept an electrical fence to divide the children from the crops.
“We weren’t being taught to be smart. We were being taught how to be maids and how to crochet and how to quilt,” Mendez said during her speech.
Gonzalo Mendez went to the school board, and they told him there was nothing they could do, so Mendez took the case to court. The school district appealed, and Mendez won the case with California in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which led to the desegregation of public schools in California. The United States federally desegregated schools seven years later after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Mendez said she was a nurse for 33 years but when her mother, Felicitas Mendez, became ill, she had to quit to take care of her. While Mendez took care of her, her mother encouraged her to tell the story of her case and the struggles of the Latinx community.
“I told my mother I can’t do that, I’m a nurse, and she told me ‘Sylvia, someone has to do it,’ ” Mendez said during her speech.
Mendez sent letters to all the schools in Orange County to get their permission to tell her story. Mendez introduced a bill to get her court case taught in California public schools. The bill was initially vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger but was reintroduced and passed, making the case a part of state curriculum last year.
In 1997, Mendez Intermediate School in Santa Ana was made in honor of Mendez’s case and Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Los Angeles was made in her parents’ honor in 2009.
“What I tell my students is that they must persevere, and my mother always told me we are children of god and we deserve to be treated equally,” Mendez said during her speech. “Yes, we still have racism and prejudice, but we must persevere.”