As a Salvadoran American from a small family living in Huntington Park, California, attending UC Berkeley was a drastic change, to say the least. The scale of the university itself, the new sense of responsibility and the exigency to keep up with an educational system to which I wasn’t accustomed all made my first year very challenging. These feelings progressively festered into the belief that I didn’t belong on this campus.
As I spent more time at Cal, I was drawn to ethnic studies classes, which offered a new perspective on history and helped build my identity as a person of color. One of the most eye-opening ethnic studies classes I’ve taken was Ethnic Studies 144AC, “Race and the Law,” with Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson. We actively analyzed the way in which law played — and continues to play — a large role in creating and enforcing racialized and heteronormative power dynamics throughout history in the United States. The successful cases in favor of people of color were particularly reaffirming, as they marked the political successes and resilience of those who fought against the legislation created to oppress them.
One case in particular stood out for me. Mendez v. Westminster (1947) was a case that ultimately desegregated all schools in California, becoming a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which desegregated public schools nationally. As I read about Mendez v. Westminster, I wondered why this was the first time I learned about such a pivotal and influential case. As a Latinx person living in the United States, I believe that while it is essential to document the struggles of Latinx people and other people of color throughout history, it is equally important to shed light on success stories to emphasize that people of color are not only passive victims of circumstance, but rather proactive figures in creating their own change.
In response to increased immigration of Latinx people to California in the 1920s, the U.S. government created race-based schools to ensure that Latinx children and white children would be socially separated. As such, schools designated for people of color had fewer resources, the children internalized inferiority because of the teachers and they generally received a poor education in comparison to the children who attended white schools.
Gonzalo Mendez and Felicitas Mendez moved to Westminster, California, where he asked his sister, Soledad Vidaurri, to enroll his three children along with her two children in the local 17th Street elementary school. The school board promptly dismissed the Mendez children, claiming that they were too dark-skinned and “Mexican-looking” to attend the elementary school. Vidaurri’s children, on the other hand, were admitted because they were light-skinned and had a less “Mexican-sounding” surname. The Mendezes took the matter into their own hands and fought for their cause in the courts, resolute to provide their children a fair chance at a good education.
Mendez v. Westminster directly challenged the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which claimed that segregation provided facilities that were “separate but equal.” This case established that segregation was fair as long as all facilities were generally at the same standard, which failed in execution, ultimately reinforcing racial power dynamics by disproportionately disadvantaging children of color. The case forced the court to consider the rights granted through the 14th Amendment, which determined that granting citizens equal protection of the law meant ensuring social equality as well.
Through this logic, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, with the support of several organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argued that segregation degraded people of color and actively created social inequality at the level of basic school education. Judge Paul McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez, successfully desegregating schools throughout California. This meant it was illegal to segregate Native Americans and Asian Americans — previously the two groups for which segregation could be legally enforced.
Mendez v. Westminster sent a compelling statement about the negative implications and consequences of segregation, encouraging further action against segregation across the country. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, a UC Berkeley alumnus, supported the ruling in Mendez v. Westminster and used it as inspiration for his decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Warren, having already supported desegregation in the past, ruled in favor of Brown in the landmark case that desegregated schools across the United States. Although Mendez v. Westminster is not as celebrated or as acknowledged as Brown v. Board, it was the first case to desegregate schools on a large scale, it framed the unconstitutionality of segregation and it served as a key source of inspiration for the ruling in Brown v. Board.
Mendez v. Westminster is one part of a larger ethnic history in the United States that receives little publicity but is essential for students to learn about. Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, continues her parents’ work by fighting and succeeding to make the Mendez v. Westminster case a required part of elementary and high school curriculum. The ethnic studies department and the courses offered at UC Berkeley are far from perfect and can always be improved. But I believe they have the capacity to create a space in which students can engage in conversations about different ethnicities and approach the histories of people of color in a way that is rare outside of the field. Que viva la visibilidad en el UC Berkeley campus!
Alice Ventura is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley.