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Before Brown v. Board of Education There Was Méndez v. Westminster

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A picture in black and white of children seated at tables being served by an adult wearing white.
The hot lunch, school at Peñasco. Children pay about one cent daily for this hot meal made up primarily of food from the surplus commodities program, and prepared by WPA paid cooks December 1941 in Taos Co, NM. (USDA Photo No. 00DI0841) (Source:  Official USDA Flickr page; used under license, )

In keeping with the subject of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, May 17, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the issuance of the decision on Brown v. Board of EducationBrown is a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that, contrary to the legal doctrine of separate but equal, “separate education facilities are inherently unequal” and ended segregation in the United States.  While most people educated in the United States are familiar with Brown, I would like to bring your attention to more arcane cases, with arguably equal significance.

As I wrote about earlier in the blog, the case Hernández v. Texas was decided just two weeks prior to Brown; but there is another little-known case that was instrumental for the American civil rights movementMéndez v. Westminster.  While many scholars of educational desegregation assure us that the beginning of the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine was set underway with Brown v. Board of Education.  It could be argued that the beginning of that end may actually date back seven years priorMéndez v. Westminster, which ended the almost 100 years of segregation that had remained a practice since the end of the U.S.-Mexico War of 1848 and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The end of the U.S.-Mexico War gave rise to “anti-immigrant sentiments [that] resulted in increased measures to segregate Mexican-Americans from so-called ‘white’ public institutions such as swimming pools, parks, schools, and eating establishments.”

Méndez v. Westminster School District of Orange County was a federal court case that challenged racial segregation in the education system of Orange County, California.  Five Mexican-American fathers—Thomas Estrada, William Guzmán, Gonzalo Méndez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramírez—set out to challenge the practice of school segregation in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  Their claim was that their children and some 5,000 others of Mexican ancestry, had fallen victim to unconstitutional discriminatory practices by being forced to attend separate schools that had been designated “schools for Mexicans” in the school districts of El Modena, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and Westminster—all of which were in Orange County.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican-American students, by relegating them to “Mexican Schools,” was unconstitutional.

To give readers a snapshot of the times, an article that appears in the National ArchivesTeachers’ Resources, “Education Resources on School Desegregation:  School Desegregation and Civil Rights Stories:  Orange County, California,” highlights the disparagingly hostile language that was used by superintendents of Orange County to rationalize their motives for enforcing segregation practices:  “‘Mexicans are inferior in personal hygiene, ability, and in their economic outlook.’ He [the superintendent] further stated that their lack of English prevented them from learning Mother Goose rhymes and that they had hygiene deficiencies, like lice, impetigo, tuberculosis, and generally dirty hands, neck, face and ears. These he [the superintendent] stated warranted separation.”  To refute these claims, David Marcus, the attorney for Méndez brought forth experts in social science to address these essentialist (and erroneous) perspectives of Mexicans.  To counter the argument of the Mexican-American children’s inability to speak English, he called a Hispanic young lady named Carol Torres to take the stand.  This was to illustrate that Mexican-American students were certainly capable of speaking English.  Mrs. Méndez also testified and delivered, in English, one resounding line that those of us who are Americans of Hispanic ancestry or provenance may understand more intimately: “We always tell our children they are Americans.”

After nearly a year, Senior Judge Paul John McCormick for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, ruled that there were no legal grounds for the segregation of Mexican children and that these actions were a “clear denial of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.” The previously-mentioned school districts appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed Judge McCormick’s ruling. “Two months later, California’s Governor Earl Warren signed a bill ending school segregation in California, making it the first state to official desegregate its public schools.”  The name Earl Warren should ring a bell, as he would later become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, at the time that the Court heard the Brown v. Board of Education case. Perhaps the old adage “history does not occur in a vacuum” is true. Earl Warren’s role in seeing to the passing  of legislation (the Anderson bill) in his state–after understanding the arguments brought before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals–certainly paved the way for the favorable outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.

Because the subject of segregation in terms of Hispanic education is little known, I would like to leave you with some food for thought.  The Shades of Orange Photo Collection, which is the product of a collaboration spearheaded by Orange Public Library in conjunction with the Orange Barrio Historical Society, Old Towne Preservation Association, Chapman University, EDAW Inc., and City of Orange Community Development Department, among others, provides a great snapshot of this moment in history.  The tab titled “Neighborhood Activities” includes photos of schools during segregation and integration.  I encourage you to take a look at these pictures:  1925 and 1935.  Notice that the Sycamore School in the 1925 photo was also know as “The Barn” or “Mexican School.”  The collection description states that “Segregation from Anglo residents of Orange was a part of school life for the Mexican-American children.  Children in Cypress Barrio attended the Lemon Street School, but there were two buildings one for the Anglo and another for the Mexican.  In 1946, schools were desegregated and all neighborhood children in the Cypress Barrio attended the newly-integrated Killefer School.”

Comments (16)

  1. On point….. People forget that thanks to the Mendez V. Westminster school district is what launched the Brown V. The Board of Education. I am a proud Mexican born kid that grew up in southern California since I was 6. But I feel more American then any other Chicano here. Proud to read articles like this one, and at the same time helps me get ready for my exam on Chicano history.

    • Thank you, Hugo. I wish you all the best in your studies. Your dedication and histories such as these–which are indeed American histories–augur hope and a bright future for young men and women like you. ¡Suerte!

  2. As a teacher of many Hispanic students, I am so excited to have your blog as a wonderful resource! Last year my 6th graders read a lot about the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. Students saw one sign pictured in our book that said “No Dogs, No Negroes, No Mexicans” ( but there was no information in that book about the struggle of Mexican Americans with regards to segregation. Then I heard this recent podcast from Latino USA ( that referenced 2 court cases–the desegregation of pools in a city in California as well as the desegregation of schools . I knew there had to be more information out there! Thank you for your research and the amazing links, especially to the photos! I can’t wait to add this information to my unit this year.

    • Thank you Kirsten for your interest in our blog and for taking the time to enhance and customize your lessons from the materials we set out. The Library has a program known as Teaching with Primary Sources that you may want to explore. It has materials that are customized for teachers, for their inclusion in lesson plans. If there is anything you should need, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

  3. I believe that Mendez vs Westminster was one of several cases including the Sweatt case which contributed to the Brown Vs Topeka success. I think the final finding of the Appeals Court sidestepped Plesy by stating that segregation by race was not at issue because the Mendez Plantiffs were not nonwhite. ( Even though the case was clearly about racism – arbitrary cynical racism proven by the words of the defendant school board in reference to Mexican children. ) I think the rub was that California schools were not uniformly segrated for Mexican children and the Orange County School districts tried to pull “a fast one”. Segregation for Mexican children whowere considered “white” was struck down,
    The Brown Case complicated as it was , had national impact.

  4. Many Mexicans are being mis-educated in regards to the Supreme Court case, Brown v. The Board of Ed. In California , Mexican Americans believe Brown should have been named Mendez.
    Mendez and Brown were both state cases. Mendez had been won on a state level. The country had been setting the stage politically and legally to go after Plessy v. FERGUSON 1897 which legalI zed segregation in this country under thev”separate but Equal Doctrine.” NO state can overturn a Supreme Court Case. Under Federalism, only the Supreme Court can Overturn it’s case. Mendez wasn’t a case the NAACP, Attorney Thurgood Marshall could take to the Supreme Court to argue Plessy. The Mexicans wouldn’t join the NAACP. Yes, Mexicans were classified as White. The NAACP had a group of cases which took years of preparation. The reason the the justices named the case BROWN was to take pressure off the SOUTH. The Brown case was a Kansas case. If you research Supreme Court Cases, you will find it interesting how the justices arrived at the names of the cases. Note, many Mexican Americans identify as being white today when it comes to race. Race is complicated. Today, second,third or fourth generation Mexicans marry white and don’t identify with recent Mexican immigrants. The are White and believe they are above blacks and new Mexican immigrants. There are exceptions.

  5. it is of great pleasure to know that as a so called “Minority” Hispanics main concern is to bring forth education rights to our homes. Mendes vs. Westminster came to be the open door to Education rights across the Board. I urge that Our Children get to know their Constitutional Rights and get to know how valuable it is our legal input to our civil Rights in Our United States of America.

  6. Though I taught K-8 from 1963-1965 school years on Kashia Rancheria in Sonoma County among neighboring Goldwaterites, I was not aware of this Decision. Now as a retired college professor, I regret that I remained ignorant of it to this year(2018). I am passing this on to my children: educators in their fashions. More Americans ought to be familiar with victories in this on-going struggle.

  7. This case was an effort for MEXICANS not to be considered or treated like blacks. WHILE Brown V Board of Education was a fight to have all people to be considered equal. And the Hispanic community was very comfortable with the discrimination against the African American (and on some level still is) just as long as they are not considered or treated like African Americans.

  8. This is the biggest myth in civil rights history! Nothing they claim about this case is true at all.

    They won this case by saying that the segregation was not legal because Mexicans are white! It did not end legal segregation for non-white minorities in California.

    Sandra Robbia dug this case up and made up fairy tales about it. This is making an absolute mockery of history. Mendez needs to be debunked.

  9. This is a great resource and a wonderful piece of history that needs to be included in our schools’ history books. thank you for providing it.

  10. Feb 15, 1848, Benjamin Roberts filed the first school desegregation suit after his daughter Sarah was barred from public school in Boston. After that, an Asian family filed suit in San Francisco and won. Context is important to rebuff revisionist history.

  11. Thank you for our Lost History and it should be taught in schools, because when i ask my grandkids now about what they know about slavery. They tell me it was against the blacks and that is a problem because our Native and Mexican Ancestors were slaves and mistreated before the black people were, but you don’t find that in the school books. Our History needs to be told now so that everyone knows what really happened to our Mexican and Native Ancestors. There’s Lynching, murder, Slavery, Genocide, picking cotton,fruit or vegetables and segregation is what happened to our people.


  12. So glad to find this article. I will use it as a reference. I am applying for a position at the board of Education in a county where the majority of voters(and residents)are white. And they know each other for generations. I just moved 3 years ago and I have children who just started at the school. Thank you so much for posting this article. Btw I printed!!

  13. Sylbia Mendez was legally white. The recent claims about Mendez v Westminster are false. The case did NOT pave the way for Brown v Board. The arguments made in the case are based on a a pro-Jim Crow case (The State of California v. Wilmington School District) and Sylvia Mendez’s legally whiteness. Mexican Americans were not Jim Crowed out of anything. They were supporters of Jim Crow.

  14. I was able to have diferente experiences about racism and segregation with my kids. Especially in California. We brought our kids when they were very young due to dangerous situations in Mexico.
    When my kids started school, I noticed that the education system doesnt offer help for kids coming to the US in terms of coping and getting used to the new culture, they are not to “blame” to come here, but us, the parents who came with the desire to help them to improve and sometimes, preserve their lives from dangers.
    Some of my kids faced a lot of discrimination and bullying at school, especially by the teachers, it was hard for my older to get used to the new school system, so he started to go in strange paths, teachers never supported him, instead, they tagged him. I asked the school if there were some help for kids getting used to this kind of change and none was given. I learned that there were different school districts and many of them were welcoming to everyone. So I realized that all depended of unique rules in each school district.
    At first I was scared to act, so I learned that parents are a strong part on our kids education, as these parents mentioned in the article did. It is good to make known that they can help to improve school condition for your kids to newcomers, this was a great help for me that I was taught well by good friends.
    This case is an example of how parents (US citizens or not) can be empowerd, taught and helped to provide a better future for their kids. As these wonderful parents who made history in Orange County, we can also change our own history and our kids future.
    Learn your rights, learn that you can be empowered and history shows how.
    We live in the state of Utah and nothing of this has happened to my kids in schools, which I am grateful.
    This is a great article. Thanks for posting!

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