Most of us are well versed with the history of school segregation in the American South, but did you know that there was a massive issue in California as well? The issue in California was not with the segregation of African Americans, but rather, with the Hispanic community. When we found the book Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh at the library, it was eye-opening.
Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Instead, Sylvia and her siblings had to go to “the Mexican school.” Their school was a clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture. The kids had to eat outside, pestered by the flies from the cows, and there was no playground for them to use.
Her father’s initial course of action was to mobilize the other Hispanics in their community, but the other families didn’t want to rock the boat – they feared that they would lose their jobs if they supported his petition. A truck driver who had heard of their plight encouraged Mr. Mendez to file a lawsuit. Someone had recently done that in San Bernardino to help integrate the public swimming pools and won. Mr. Mendez hired the same lawyer who had won that case and they found other families dealing with segregation throughout Orange County, CA who were willing to participate.
In 1945 the lawsuit went to court and the dialogue from the trial is horrifying. Duncan Tonatiuh actually interviewed Sylvia Mendez and took parts of the court scenes from actual transcripts of the trial. The superintendents at the time claimed that they were separating the Mexican children so that they could work on their English more, but they never tested their abilities. It was also claimed that they “need to learn cleanliness of mind, manner, and dress. They are not learning that at home.” The superintendent at the time honestly felt that white students were superior to Mexicans in personal hygiene, scholastic ability, economic outlook, clothing and ability to take part in the activities of the school. When children came forward to testify, they showed how senseless his comments had been.
It took a year for the ruling, but the judge ruled in favor of the Mendez family. Of course, the School Board appealed, but since it had moved to state court, more organizations joined in the battle – the NAACP, Japanese Citizens League, American Jewish Congress and others. Sylvia’s mother puts it perfectly by saying, “when you fight for justice, others will follow.”
In April, 1947, the judges of the Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the Mendez family.
Sylvia found it difficult at the integrated school in Westminster, but she remembered how they fought to have her attend the school and to have equal opportunities. She ignored the whispers and pointed fingers and held her head high, “and by the end of the year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds.”
This book is so vitally important for children and adults and it is written in a truly accessible manner. Everyone needs to understand that when we talk about integration, it wasn’t just for African-Americans in the 1960s. The Mendez trial paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Freedom is something that we will continue to fight for, be it religious, social, political, racial or gender (or many other things). It is due to the fights and struggles that so many people have gone through in years gone by that allow us to have the freedoms we take for granted today. This book is wonderfully written about a topic you simply don’t hear a lot about.