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School Desegregation for All Children – The Legacy of Méndez v. Westminster

Image Courtesy of Duncan Tonatiuh

Image Courtesy of Duncan Tonatiuh

Gonzalo Méndez, William Guzmán, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada, and Lorenzo Ramírez, as citizens of the United States, and on behalf of their minor children, and as they allege in the petition, on behalf of ‘some 5000′ persons similarly affected, all of Mexican or Latin descent, have filed a class suit pursuant to Rule 23 of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, against the Westminster, Garden Grove and El Modena School Districts, and the Santa Ana City Schools, all of Orange County, California, and the respective trustees and superintendents of said school districts.

The complaint, grounded upon the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States 1 and Subdivision 14 of Section 24 of the Judicial Code, (Title 28, Section 41, subdivision 14, U.S.C.A., 2 alleges a concerted policy and design of class discrimination against ‘persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction’ of elementary school age by the defendant school agencies in the conduct and operation of public schools of said districts, resulting in the denial of the equal protection of the laws to such class of person among which are the petitioning school children.

So begins the Conclusion of the United States District Court, Southern District of California, Central Division in the case of Méndez v. Westminster (Civil No. 4292-M), which was issued on February 18, 1946.

This month provided many historical moments, present and past, for  Méndez v. Westminster.  Instead of rehashing this case, I would like to speak a bit about Sylvia Méndez, and the recognition she and this moment in history have received.

Sylvia Méndez was born in Santa Ana, California, in 1936.  She is the daughter of Gonzalo Méndez and Felicitas Méndez. Her father was a Mexican immigrant and her mother was Puerto Rican. On September 15 2004, Sylvia was invited to the White House on the occasion of National Hispanic Heritage Month where her story, among highlights of the achievements of other Hispanic Americans, was shared with the guests that filled the East Room.

On February 15, 2011, she was awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.  According to the White House, “Sylvia Mendez was thrust to the forefront of the civil rights movement when she was just a child.  Denied entry to the Westminster School because of her Mexican heritage, she sought justice and her subsequent legal case, Mendez v. Westminster, effectively ended segregation as a matter of law in California.  The arguments in that case catalyzed the desegregation of our schools and prevailed in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, forever changing our nation.  Today, Sylvia Mendez continues to share her remarkable story and advocate[s] for excellence and equality in classrooms in America.”

Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1969.  Courtesy of Bob Hope Archives (129.00.00) [Digital ID# bh0178

Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1969. Courtesy of Bob Hope Archives (129.00.00) [Digital ID# bh0178]











In 2014, Duncan Tonatiuh, the Mexican-born author and illustrator, published a book recounting the lives of Ms. Méndez and her family*.  According to the publisher:  “Years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez, an eight-year-old girl of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, played an instrumental role in Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark desegregation case of 1946 in California.”

On February 6, 2015, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that the book had received the 2015 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Award, and the 2015 Robert F. Sibert Information Honor Book Award.  The book also received the 2015 Tomás Rivera Award for Younger Readers.

As we continue to celebrate the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we should also remember the stories of the Hispanic-Americans who fought for equality and whose legal strife paved the way for victory against social, legal and political inequality, and injustice.


*Tonatiuh, Duncan.  Separate Is Never Equal:  The Story of Sylvia Mendez and Her Family.  New York:  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014.

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