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How 9-Year-Old Sylvia Mendez Helped Desegregate Schools

Sylvia Mendez family photos

I get heated when I talk about education. Even more so when I recognize how far we’ve come and how much further we still have left to go. I took umbrage with my school experience, but I was relieved to be educated in the 2000s when hearing stories from generations past.

Brown v. Board of Education is a long cited case steeped in cultural importance that opened access to education for students of all races and ethnicities in the US. However, it isn’t the only case to make a stand for equal education. When I matured out of public school, I learned about the landmark case, which set a precedent for desegregation of schools and a young girl whose parents fought for her education. 

Sylvia Mendez is the daughter of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants who operated an agricultural business in Westminster, CA. In the 1940s, Sylvia and her brothers began attending Hoover Elementary, the only school in the district open to Hispanic students. When Sylvia’s parents saw the education received by students of the ‘white-only’ school, 17th St Elementary, they wanted to enroll her and the other children of their family. 

Sylvia Mendez’ 1st grade class at the segregated Hoover School

17th St Elementary denied entry to the Mendez family’s children citing their skin color and Hispanic surname. The entire family was rightfully outraged and decided to move forward with their case, Mendez v. Westminster, in a fight to end segregation of schools in California. 

Mendez v. Westminster was a class action lawsuit against several school districts in California representing five Mexican-American families and ‘5,000 similarly situated children’. The case gained support from numerous groups, including the NAACP, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League. 

As a young girl, Sylvia watched her father give the education system hell and stand up for their rights during a time when people were being blacklisted for suspected communism or imprisoned for being Japanese. She remarks on her father during that time

“He knew that what he was doing was the right thing to do. He was going to right a wrong.”

A photo of Sylvia’s activist parents, Gonzalo & Felicitas Mendez.

The case was found in favor of the Mendez family. Schools integrated throughout California, and those 5,000 children would be able to access the education they deserved. The judge stated in the ruling that

“segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists.”

It would be nice to think that in the aftermath, the children were happy and treated with kindness by their peers in the integrated system. As we all know, there is no rest for those that spark change. Sylvia attended 17th St Elementary facing anti-Hispanic sentiment head-on during her school years. She went on to become a dedicated nurse for 30 years and eventually, an activist for Hispanic student rights. US history has failed to acknowledge the Mendez family’s contribution to the desegregation of schools.

I want to say gracias to Sylvia and her family. I’m grateful for their tireless work and the ripple it left for all communities of color.

Lo Boutillette

With deep ties to music and the arts, Lo is constantly inspired by her Latin Americana roots and the spontaneity of New York City. When she isn’t planning and perfecting her productions you’ll find her tending to her rose garden with her dog Bella.

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