May 7, 2004

The End of the “Mexican School”

By Lisa Jennings

Sylvia Mendez, a 67-year-old Southern California retired nurse and grandmother of two, is not a lawyer, professor, or policy maker. But for many in the Hispanic community, her name is synonymous with the defeat of legal school segregation.

Ms. Mendez and others across the nation will mark the 50th anniversary this month of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a landmark case that in 1954 sounded the death knell for an era in which White and non-White schoolchildren attended “separate but equal” schools.

But nearly a decade before the historic Brown ruling found such schools “inherently unequal,” Ms. Mendez was on the front lines with those challenging the fairness of similar laws for Mexican-American schoolchildren in a case known as Mendez v. Westminster.

The Gonzalo Mendez family challenged segregated education in California.

In 1944, Ms. Mendez was nine years old and her father, Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican-American tenant farmer, had moved the family from a Hispanic neighborhood to the predominantly Anglo town of Westminster, California. Mr. Mendez tried to enroll his children in the neighborhood school. But that school district, he was told, didn’t allow children who appeared to be Hispanic to integrate with Anglo students, so Ms. Mendez and her brothers were sent to a “Mexican school” nearby.

Infuriated, Mr. Mendez and four other Mexican-American families would eventually launch a legal battle March 2, 1945, against four Orange County school districts that would ultimately result in the dismantling of school segregation laws in California and throughout the Southwest. It was the first federal case to find that segregation based on national origin was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, and it would be the catalyst for a ripple-effect that would open broad opportunities across the nation for U.S. Hispanics and other minority groups.

The precedent-setting Mendez case, which included work by Los Angeles attorney David Marcus, moved Earl Warren, as California’s governor in 1947, to push a broader repeal of segregation laws through the legislature soon after the ruling. Mr. Warren would later become a prominent player in the Brown case: As chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Warren wrote the Brown decision in 1954.

In California, the defeat of segregation laws not only ended the days of “Mexican schools” – allowing access to the significant benefits of quality education – it also lifted many of the barriers Hispanic families faced in myriad other areas, including buying homes. Combined with the Brown ruling years later, the moves would open a world of opportunity that has helped propel the growing affluence and influence of the U.S. Hispanic community today.

In the wake of the Brown ruling, coupled with the growing population, the number of Hispanic children in public schools across the U.S. has surged 305 percent – from an estimated 2 million in 1968 to more than 8 million in 2001. Educational access and attainment has helped boost labor force participation, with Hispanics now accounting for 1 of every 9 U.S. workers. With job opportunities has come rising income, increasing the community’s estimated annual purchasing power to $575 billion.

R. Alex Acosta, who last year was named the first Hispanic assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, credits those achievements to the Brown ruling – as well as the Voting Rights Act, which will be 40 years old next year.

“It appears to me that, by all measures, Hispanics are rapidly achieving success in a whole range of areas,” says Mr. Acosta, who co-chairs a Brown anniversary commission established by President Bush.

While the Brown case was about race, the Mendez case dealt with segregation based on national origin – the children were considered Caucasian but of Mexican descent, though their heritage was most likely a mix of Spanish and Native American. Both are seen as turning points, but the Mendez story is often unknown.

Christopher Arriola, deputy district attorney of Santa Clara County in Southern California, remembers that he was shocked when he discovered the Mendez case while studying at Stanford University.

“There were segregated schools four blocks from where I grew up and nobody ever told me about it,” says Mr. Arriola. To increase awareness, Mr. Arriola established a Web site about the case, published articles in law journals, and created a collection of research materials at Stanford University.

Sandra Robbie, a third-generation Mexican American, also wants more people to be aware of the Mendez case. She produced an Emmy Award-winning documentary “Mendez v. Westminster: For All the Children, Para Todos los Ninos,” which has been broadcast on California public television station KOCE. “We helped make Brown happen,” she says. “I want to see Sylvia [Mendez] talking to Katie Couric and Oprah, and dancing with the President.”

Today, Ms. Mendez, who tells her family’s story at schools, notes, “My father often said, ‘Nobody ever thanked us for it.’ “ He died in 1964 at the age of 51. But in 1998 – a few years before her mother, Felicitas Mendez, died – the Santa Ana school board named a new middle school the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School.

Ironically, however, the school’s student body is 95 percent Hispanic. And it is such “de facto segregation” that must be addressed, says Ms. Mendez. She is troubled by the dropout rate among Hispanic students and says she aims to inspire them to take full advantage of the educational opportunities available today – opportunities that exist largely because of people who, like her father, helped pave the way for Hispanic families following the American dream.

“When I go to the schools, I tell them they have to get an education and a profession,” says Ms. Mendez. “So they can buy a house anywhere they want. If you have money, they can’t stop you.”

Reprinted from HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine.

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