By Brittany Hanson/Garden Grove Journal
In 1946, a young Westminster girl named Sylvia Mendez was taking her first steps in becoming a part of desegregation history. Since then, her steps now lead her up to a stage where she accepts the highest form of honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian, the Medal of Freedom.
In the telecast, as the medal is lowered around her neck by President Barack Obama, you can see tears on her face.
Her honor was hard-earned, starting from a very young age being faced with discrimination.
Mendez was born in Santa Ana in 1936 to her parents Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who worked in agriculture.
In 1944, Mendez’s parents attempted to enroll her and her brothers in Hoover Elementary in Westminster alongside her cousins. The cousins were granted admission due to light skin and non-Mexican surnames, however Sylvia and her brothers were denied.
The Mendez parents knew that the school had better facilities for students and refused to allow their children to attend the lesser equipped 17th Street school for Hispanics in the Mexican neighborhood.
As a result, Gonzalo and approximately 5,000 others challenged the school districts of Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and others in Orange County for the inclusion of students of Mexican and Latin heritage in the case that became Mendez vs. Westminster.
This case was a groundbreaking decision that is largely considered the precursor to the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, the case that declared it unconstitutional for schools to be segregated in any form.
During a time when segregation was the norm, parents and community members fought to break down those barriers. Then, children of Mexican or Latin heritage immigrant parents were not allowed to attend the predominantly white schools in the districts.
Some of the reasons given in the case as to why Mexican and Latin heritage students were placed in separate schools was that, according to a University of California Los Angeles symposium on the case, “[Mexican students] who were [in that culture] perceived as “dirty, lawless…stupid and lazy . . . the separation of Mexicans was [perceived as] necessary because: “the Mexican is a menace to the health and morals of the rest of the community.”
It was even offered up, that Mexican students would not feel comfortable in the Anglo Saxon schools because of the quality of their clothes and a language barrier that would become the foothold of the opposing argument.
According to the same UCLA symposium, under the leadership of Gonzalo Mendez, and co-plaintiffs William Guzman, Frank Palomino, Thomas Estrada and Lorenzo Ramirez, a class action suit was filed against the Westminster School District on March 2, 1945, as well as against three other Orange County school districts, including the Garden Grove Elementary.
David Marcus represented the plaintiffs in the Mendez case. Marcus was an attorney who had successfully tried other desegregation cases and centered his argument on the violations of his clients’ Fourteenth Amendment rights, those of protection of the rights guaranteed to American citizens and the due process of law.
Representing the defendants in the case was Joel Ogle who demanded that the Mendez case be dismissed.
Ogle stated that the separating of Mexican children from their white counterparts was strictly for educational purposes and therefore a justifiable practice.
Overseeing the proceedings was the Honorable Paul J. McCormick of the Ninth District, who handed down the decision in favor of desegregation on Feb. 18, 1946, citing that constitutional rights were being violated.
Now, years later, Sylvia Mendez is a retired nurse who tours the country still to speak the benefit of good education.
On the day of her award of the Medal of Freedom, Mendez said this in a personal speech for the White House’s website, www.whitehouse.gov.
“What inspired me was that my parents fought for me . . . we’re all individuals, we’re all humans being and we’re all connected together with the same right and the same freedoms. We live in this wonderful, wonderful country of ours were we have so many opportunities.I am so said I tell them that they are not taking advantage of that. So many students are dropping out of high school, and they’re are not even going to high school or to college . . .And I want them to fulfill their destiny and to dream the dream that I am living . . . and it is possible for everyone in this nation to dream it and live it.”