The overlooked story of the first step toward desegregation

Lissete Landaverde

It is well-known that the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case led to the desegregation of schools across the country. Less well-known is another case that came before that paved the way for the passage of Brown v. Board.

Andrea Garavito Martinez and Maria Del Mar Gonzalez share a google doodle that celebrates Felicitas Mendez. Photo credit: Lissete Landaverde

In the presentation titled “Whose school? The pursuit of equality in Mendez v. Westminster school district,” Andrea Garavito Martinez, assistant professor in teacher education, and María del Mar González, art history assistant professor, presented the overlooked case that led to desegregation in California.

Felicitas Mendez and her husband Gonzalo Mendez spearheaded the Mendez v. Westminster class-action lawsuit against the school district, which resulted in the first federal court ruling against public school desegregation. This case took place from 1946 to 1947, almost a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.

They were not alone in this case. The Mendez family was accompanied by four other families of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. They were also supported by different racial and ethnic groups, such as Asian Americans, African Americans and Jewish Americans.

“What is interesting is that, despite these legal wins, much of the U.S. Latinx community today actually continues to struggle to obtain a just and equitable education,” González said. “This is actually something that we’ve seen deepen even further with the Coronavirus pandemic.”

The case took place due to the couple’s attempts to enroll their three children in Westminster Elementary School, an all-white school and were denied based on the children being dark-skinned. They were then sent to Hoover School, a school for Mexican children.

On the other hand, other members of their family could go to Westminster because of their lighter skin color.

In the 1940s, Californian school districts, by law, would segregate American Indian and Asian children. They would also place Latinx and African American students in separate programs.

Additionally, they had de facto segregation, meaning Mexican students were attending separate so-called Mexican schools, even when it was not part of the law.

A photo of Hoover School's first grade class of 1944 is shared for all members of the zoom call to see.
A photo of Hoover School's first grade class of 1944 is shared for all members of the Zoom call to see. Photo credit: Lissete Landaverde

These Mexican schools often looked like barns and had different water fountains and teachers compared to the all-white schools. Rather than being separated by grade level, all the children were often taught in the same room.

Rather than claiming racial discrimination, as Mexicans were legally considered white in California, the family instead claimed it was discrimination based on ancestry and language deficiency, denying the children of their 14th amendment rights.

The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs due to the social, psychological and pedagogical damage the Mexican-American students faced. This ruling was supported by lawyers having the children testify their experiences and describe the Mexican schools’ condition.

Following the case coming out in favor of the Mendez family, many appeals were submitted by school districts, claiming federal courts did not have jurisdiction over education.

Martinez brought up a quote by Judge Paul J. McCormick, who oversaw the Mendez v. Westminster case: “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality.”

She said the quote argues that separate does not mean equal.

While legal segregation was eradicated with Brown v. Board of Education and school districts were forced to integrate, segregation based on race, income level and geographic location can still be seen in public schools today.

According to the Civil Rights Project, the past two decades have shown that many schools were released from desegregation orders. Therefore many districts never truly integrated since most of them were based on geographic boundaries.

Those exact geographic boundaries reflect decades of discriminatory housing policies that would often categorize neighborhoods on race.

Since 2007, Los Angeles Unified School District has dedicated a new school to Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez. Sylvia Mendez, one of their children, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by former President Barack Obama.

There have also been efforts to add the Mendez v. Westminster case to California lesson plans, but attempts have not been successful. Now that ethnic studies courses are being required in Californian high schools, there will be another vote to include the case in lessons later in 2021.

A clipping from a newspaper sharing the new ruling, giving Mexican children equal rights, is shared and used to invoke conversation among the members of the zoom session.
A clipping from a newspaper sharing the new ruling giving Mexican children equal rights is shared and used to invoke conversation among the members of the Zoom session. Photo credit: Lissete Landaverde

Sylvia Mendez and Duncan Tonatiuh, a Mexican-American author, have been trying to educate people about the case, school desegregation and the complexity of the civil rights movement.

Felicitas Mendez told her daughter to continue telling the family of their story since it was not just about them, but the hundreds of other families that were impacted by their victory.

González and Martinez recommended different resources for both students and educators, one of them being Tonatiuh’s book, “Separate is Never Equal.” They also recommended visuals such as the Mendez v. Westminster mural located in a courthouse in Santa Ana, California.

Martinez said the mural could serve as a reminder that “segregation and the impact that it has is that it can divide. It can serve as a wedge.”

González and Martinez reminded the audience that Latinx identities are complex, given the wide range of ethnic and racial groups within them, to wrap up the presentation. They said it is often forgotten about when discussing Latinx people in the United States.