Who is this woman and why is she crying?
Like so much of history, there’s often a story hidden behind the story that is commonly known. Such is the case with the desegregation of schools in America. Most of us have heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that was decided in the Supreme Court and ended school segregation in 1954.
But in reality, the groundwork for that victory was laid eight years earlier by Mexican American families in California who won the first federal court ruling that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, with Mendez v. Westminster School District.
Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez were California farmworkers. Their children were sent home by the local school district with a message for the parents that they’d have to attend a separate facility reserved for Mexican Americans. The Mendez family, joined by parents from nearby school districts, challenged the segregation in federal court. They did not claim racial discrimination—Mexicans were legally considered White at that time. Instead, they claimed discrimination based on ancestry and supposed language deficiency that denied their children their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
Federal District Court Judge Paul McCormick upheld the plaintiffs on the grounds that the social, psychological, and pedagogical costs of segregated education were damaging to Mexican-American children. The Ninth Circuit supported McCormick's decision, ruling that the schools' actions violated California law. The appeal to the Ninth Circuit was supported by amicus briefs from the NAACP, which would later apply the Mendez argument to support the plaintiffs in Brown v Board of Education.
In 2006, the Federal Government recognized the Mendez v. Westminster decision with a commemorative USPO stamp.
And that picture (at the top) of the woman crying? It’s Sylvia Mendez, daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, when she was awarded the 2010 Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama.
“When I got it I couldn’t stop crying, because I was thinking finally my mother and father are getting the thanks they deserve. This is theirs, not mine. They stood up against the establishment.” [Sylvia Mendez, quoted in the Los Angeles Times]
Memoirs Open Doors to Latinx and Hispanic Heritage
Explore America’s multicultural history during National Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month. Books are a great way to celebrate the people, events, and socio-political and cultural contributions that have helped to shape our nation over the centuries. Two memoirs, one old and one new, provide great reading. Enjoy!
This memoir by Antonio Mario Osio was reportedly the first written history of Alta California during the era of Mexican rule. Osio was a Mexican-Californian, a government representative, and owner of the lands that came to be known as Angel Island and Point Reyes. He wrote this book in 1851, and this first complete English translation by Santa Clara University professors Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz was published in 1996. Osio’s memoir sheds light on California’s tumultuous history from the 1830s until 1852 when he and his family left for Mexico. He provides a detailed accounting of life during U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848) and California’s somewhat chaotic transition from territory to statehood. He also notes important milestones and accomplishments of Mexican California. A rare and enlightening book for readers who are not well-versed on California’s early history.
You may recognize the name of Maria Hinojosa from her Emmy award-winning work as a journalist and host of NPR's Latino USA. She has brought to light many richly textured and previously untold stories of Hispanic and Latinx peoples. Hinojosa’s memoir, “Once I Was You” (“Una vez fui tú”)calls us to look honestly at the present-day immigration crisis through her personal experiences, which include growing up Mexican American and building a career in the mainstream media. Hinojosa is a thoughtful and passionate storyteller and an important voice of Latinx America.