Pioneers in Desegregation of Schools

Gonzalo Mendez came to America from Mexico and married Felicitas Mendez, a native of Puerto Rico. They rented a farm from a Japanese family who had been sent to an internment camp.

There was widely practiced discrimination against Hispanics, especially in the school systems. When Gonzalo and Felicitas tried to enroll their children in the local schools, they were denied. Appeals were turned down, and the Mendez children were sent to a two-room shack for their schooling.

The Mendez’ were not deterred. The Mendez children and their cousins attempted to enroll at the whites-only school. The cousins were accepted, but the Mendez children were denied because their skin was darker. None of the children decided to attend.

Felicitas took over the family business while Gonzalo tried to rally support from the Hispanic community. He had little success but finally, he was able to get four other families to join him in a lawsuit.

The school board made the claim that Hispanic children were deficient in their English language skills. But when Sylvia Mendez, their 8-year-old daughter, and other children testified, that claim was easily refuted.

The local court ruled in favor of the Hispanic plaintiffs. The local school system appealed. By this time, the lawsuit had drawn a lot of attention, and various civil rights groups had joined in. One of the attorneys was Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice. The appeals court upheld the local court and the Governor of California. Earl Warren (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) ordered all schools in California to be desegregated. This was 1947, seven years before the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling desegregated schools nationwide. The arguments used by the local attorney became the basis for the favorable ruling used by Thurgood Marshall before the Supreme Court.

Sylvia Mendez and her brothers were not treated well when they were allowed to attend the desegregated school system. But they persevered in their rights to an education. While we are familiar with the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and its impact on America, little is known about the contributions the Mendez family made in pioneering the desegregation of schools.

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            “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama

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