Civil rights activist revisits her role in desegregation

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Sylvia Mendez was in third grade when her parents were told she could not attend the whites-only school in Orange County, California. They fought back, and their action paved the path for desegregation of schools throughout the United States.

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez filed a lawsuit against four southern California school districts for their policies on segregation. Mendez v. Westminster became a landmark case, and set precedent for Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that put an end to school segregation.

Mendez spoke with Horizonte about her experience with discrimination at such a young age, and how her parents’ fight for equality impacted how she lived her life.

Jose A. Cardenas: Good evening and welcome to Horizonte.

Intro: Daughter had to attend a segregated school and his family linked arms with other families to fight in a california court. A case that would pave the way for brown verse board of edgeication.

Jose A. Cardenas: We'll talk to a civil rights activist who played an instrumental role in a 1940s landmark school desegregation case. Plus, we'll talk about the annual datos report detailing the Hispanic buying power in Arizona. All this coming up next on Horizonte.

"Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Jose A. Cardenas: While Brown versus Board of Education is a widely known landmark supreme court case, not many know that it traces its origins to the case of nine year old Sylvia Mendez in Mendez versus Westminster the 1947 ruling in that case outlawed segregation in California schools and then Governor Earl Warren relied on it to eliminate all segregation in his state. Nine years later, now chief justice of the US Supreme Court, he relied on that experience in writing the supreme court's decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Changemaker Central, El Concilio, and Womyn's Coalition together invited 2011 presidential medal of freedom recipient Sylvia Mendez to a-s-u to talk about her parents' fight for desegregation of schools in California. Joining me now Sylvia Mendez. Ms. Mendez, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte." We know you are here in conjunction with the commemoration of a famous case you were a part of. Just to provide context for all of that we have a video we prepared that we will show right now.

Video: We would all be in the same bus together and they would drop us off in front of the school. This beautiful manicured lawn school with palm trees and a wonderful playground in the front and then we had to walk to the Mexican school. The schoolbooks were all handed down so they would be torn. We were being taught how to be good maids and being taught how to clean, how to sew, how to quilt. We were not being taught academics. As a 9-year-old girl all I was thinking was they were fighting for me to go to this beautiful school never realizing what they were fighting for and what was going on in Westminster was not right. We had a judge called Judge McCormick who said that separate is never equal. It had a ripple effect over Southern California. The theaters were integrated and housing became easier to move to different areas and I will never forget the first day I walked into that school and this little boy comes up to me and says you are a Mexican. What are you Mexicans doing here? Don't you know Mexicans don't belong in this school? You are not supposed to be in this school. When that boy said that to me, I felt this pain in my heart like somebody stabbed me. I felt so hurt and humiliated that I started crying. I go home and tell my mother, mother, I don't want to be in that school. They don't want Mexicans there. And my mother said, Sylvia, don't you know what we were fighting for and wanted for you? We wanted you to know that you are just as equal as that boy. We were fighting for you not to be humiliated and inferior because under god you are just as good as he is.

Jose A. Cardenas: A very impressive story. It started, as I understand, this wasn't in the video, with your aunt taking you and your cousins to register at the Westminster school. The one that was for whites-only. Tell us the story of what happened there.

Sylvia Mendez: What happened was we were all together. My two cousins and my two brothers. When we got there, the clerk told my aunt you can leave your children here but your brother's kids will have to go the Mexican school.

Jose A. Cardenas: The reason she said that was because your last time was Mendez. Her husband was Mexican but she had a French name.

Sylvia Mendez: Yes and they were very light skinned.

Jose A. Cardenas: She said just tell people they are Belgium.

Sylvia Mendez: Just say you are Belgium and you can stay here.

Jose A. Cardenas: That wasn't satisfactory for your aunt?

Sylvia Mendez: No, she said I am not leaving my children here. But you will hear from my brother tomorrow.

Jose A. Cardenas: That was the beginning of the lawsuit basically. I want to put back up on the screen a picture of the school for Mexican kids. It is a two-room shack and shutdown not too long after. The kind of prejudice you are talking about, as I understand, was rampant throughout California at the time. We have a picture of a typical sign that were put up in restaurants that made it clear just like the Jim Crow South. Whites only.

Sylvia Mendez: Correct. And we couldn't go to the theater. We had to sit in the balcony. They would not allow us to sit in the theaters in the bottom. We had to sit in the back. And then we couldn't swim in the pools until the water was dirty and then they would change it next day and the white kids would swim. That swimming pool is still there in Orange County.

Jose A. Cardenas: You mentioned Judge McCormick and his ruling and because of that Westminster decided to integrate but they decided to send the older white kids to the Mexican school.

Sylvia Mendez: Correct. And place the younger ones in the white schools. And the families got so upset when they saw their children going to that horrible school they closed the school right away and put us all in the white school.

Jose A. Cardenas: That is why there was the fencing in front of your school. It wasn't good enough for white kids.

Sylvia Mendez: It wasn't good enough for white kids so they shut it down.

Jose: The incident in the clip where the white kid told you what are you doing here that was the school you went to a few years later?

Sylvia Mendez: Yes. When Judge McCormick said separate but not equal the school board appealed that case and it went to the court of appeals in California. The Japanese came back and we moved back and my dad tells the superintendent I am taking my children to the white school and the superintendent let the teacher know we were coming and that was when we get there and the teacher says everybody say hi. Everybody said hi. I had been in the Westminster school who had integrated already. So when I get there all the children said hi. And I said hi. I was so happy until the school bell rang for recess. We go outside playing and this little white boy comes up and says what are you doing here? Don't you know we don't allow Mexicans? You should not be here. That is when I started crying. And I go mother, they don't want us there. I am not going back to that school ever again. She said don't you know why we fight. Yes, so we could go to the beautiful school with the playground and swings and monkey cars. She said that is not what we were fighting for. We were fighting for because under god we are all equal and deserve the same education and of course you are going back to school and of course I went back to school.

Jose A. Cardenas: We have a picture of your parents. They are the ones that fought and made this all possible.

Sylvia Mendez: My father was so upset when he found out we were being denied that. The superintendent in Orange County told my father just forget about this lawsuit and we will allow your children to go to the white school. By then my father was so upset he said no, I am not going to stop it.

Jose A. Cardenas: So then, the ninth circuit court of appeals rules in favor of your parents.

Sylvia Mendez: Correct.

Jose A. Cardenas: 1947 and then the governor of California integrates everything.

Sylvia Mendez: What a lot of people are not aware of is he sent his attorney general to help in the Mendez case. To help fight the Mendez case. My father had help running for governor campaign for him.
Jose A. Cardenas: And then of course the historical significance is a few years later he is on the Supreme Court when Brown versus Board of Education.

Sylvia Mendez: Absolutely. What researchers have done now is gone into both cases and found out Governor Earl Warren used the same wording when he desegregated the whole nation he did in California eight years before the rest of the country did it. Everybody asks me how come we don't know about this case and this is what I tell them. I tell them maybe what happened in the south never happened in California. What happened to the students in central high never happened. Maybe if it had not gone as smoothly maybe it would have been more in the papers and everybody would have heard about the case of Mendez versus Westminster and how California was integrated eight years before the rest of the country. I have been going around the country for 20 years and I went to -- I was in Chicago last week. I asked the students how many of you have heard of this case? How many of you have not heard of it and everybody raised their hand. They have not heard how California was the first state to be integrated.

Jose A. Cardenas: Trendsetter as you have been all of your life because you went on to get a college degree and hold a nursing position and to hold administrative positions in that field.

Sylvia Mendez: And what happened was when my mother became very sick. She had a valve failure and was in hospice and I retired very young to take care of her. Both of us were sitting there and she said nobody knows about this case. This is history of California. This is history of the United States. Somebody has to go out there and start talking about it. I said yes, somebody needs to go out. She said you need to go out there and start talking about it. I said mother, I am a nurse who knows how to say open your mouth I am going to give you a shot or a pill. She said you need to go out there and talk about this case.

Jose A. Cardenas: your mother's role has been influential throughout.

Sylvia Mendez: And it continued. I sent out letters to all the colleges in Orange County. I am Sylvia Mendez and I will volunteer to tell you this history. The first case I went to was a high school invited me.

Jose A. Cardenas: That began your public speaking career. You were saying that most people don't know it but it has been recognized. There was a stamp issued about the case.

Sylvia Mendez: Now it has been recognized. Now it has been recognized but it has taken so many years.

Jose A. Cardenas: So there is the stamp and you were honored at the White House by president Obama not too long ago.

Sylvia Mendez: Which was so exciting because I had started speaking all over about the Mendez case and when this young lady because they have interns in the white house and she called and said Ms. Mendez you won the medal for your record and I thought it was another certificate I won and hung up. She called back and said you have to come and get this you have won the Medal of Freedom. I called one of the teachers because they always helped me. We have video of you receiving the medal from President Obama. I was crying and I remember Michelle Obama said don't cry. I was crying because I was so happy my father and mother were finally being recognized for what they did.

Jose A. Cardenas: It a terrific story. Great story. Thank you for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about it. It is a pleasure and an honor. Thank you.

Sylvia Mendez: Thank you.

Sylvia Mendez: Civil Rights Activist

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