Excerpt: Paving The Way

February 01, 2002 10 min read
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In the war against inequality in the United States, the battles fought by some crusaders—Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez, for example—are well-documented. A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America focuses on the less well-known as evidence that smaller skirmishes also help win a war. Among the book’s 12 tales is one written by Maria Fleming about a Mexican American community that, in 1947, brought an end to legal segregation in four Southern California school districts. Seven years later, Brown v. Board of Education would achieve the same goal nationwide.

In the fall of 1944, Soledad Vidaurri took her children and those of her brother, Gonzalo Méndez, to enroll at the 17th Street School in Westminster, California. Although they were cousins and shared a Mexican heritage, the Méndez and Vidaurri children looked quite different: Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Geronimo Méndez had dark skin, hair, and eyes, while Alice and Virginia Vidaurri had fair complexions and features.

An administrator looked the children over. Alice and Virginia could stay, he said. But their cousins would have to register at Hoover, the town’s “Mexican school” located a few blocks away. Furious at such blatant discrimination, Vidaurri returned home without registering any of the children in either school.

In the 1940s, Westminster was a small farming community in the southern part of the state. Lush citrus groves, lima bean fields, and sugar beet farms stretched in every direction from a modest downtown business district. Most men and women working in the fields were first- and second-generation immigrants from Mexico who were employed by white ranchers.

Like many California towns at the time, Westminster comprised two separate worlds: one Anglo, one Mexican. While Anglo growers welcomed Chicano workers in their fields during times of economic prosperity, they shut them out of mainstream society. Most people of Mexican ancestry lived in colonias— segregated residential communities—on the fringes of Anglo neighborhoods. The housing was often substandard, with inadequate plumbing and no heating. Roads were unpaved and dusty.

The Hoover School, in the heart of one such colonia, was attended by the children of Mexican field laborers. A small frame building at the edge of a muddy cow pasture, Hoover stood in stark contrast to the sleek 17th Street School, with its handsome green lawns and playing fields.

Mexican schools were typically housed in run-down buildings. They employed less-experienced teachers than Anglo schools and Chicano children were given shabbier books and equipment and taught in more crowded classrooms. Perhaps the greatest difference between the schools, however, was in their curricula. While geometry and biology were taught at Anglo schools, classes at Mexican schools focused on teaching boys industrial skills and girls domestic tasks.

Many Anglo educators did not expect, or encourage, Chicano students to advance beyond 8th grade. Instead, their curriculum was designed, as one superintendent put it, “to help these children take their place in society.” That “place” was the lowest rung of the economic ladder, providing cheap, flexible labor for the prospering agricultural communities of California and the Southwest.

But Chicano men and women had different ideas about their children’s futures. Like other immigrant groups, the laborers believed that education was the ticket to a better life, a way out of the heat and dust of the fields.

Gonzalo and Felícitas Méndez knew well the difficult life of field laborers. Gonzalo’s family had fled political turmoil in Mexico, leaving behind a successful ranch in Chihuahua and finding jobs as day laborers in Southern California citrus groves. Felícitas Gomez had immigrated to America from Juncos, Puerto Rico, when she was 10. Her family led a migrant life, following the harvest from Texas to Arizona to California. Eventually, they settled in the colonia where the Méndezes lived, and in 1936, Felícitas and Gonzalo married.

By that time, Gonzalo was a champion orange picker, and he commanded a slightly higher wage than other field workers. Felícitas, thrifty and resourceful, saved what she could from Gonzalo’s wages, and in a few years, the couple was able to lease their own ranch—40 acres of asparagus in Westminster.

Both Felícitas and Gonzalo had been forced to abandon education in grade school in order to support their families. But they had higher hopes for Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Geronimo. And when Soledad Vidaurri told her brother and sister-in- law that their children had been refused admission to the 17th Street School because they didn’t look “white enough,” Gonzalo and Felícitas were outraged.

“How could it be possible?” they wondered. They were American citizens. Gonzalo had been naturalized just a few years before; and because Felícitas had been born in a U.S. territory, she was a citizen by birth. Both thought of themselves as Americans and had told their kids they were Americans.

For the sake of their children, the Méndezes prepared to do battle with the Westminster School District. Because other Chicano families in the community faced the same problem, Gonzalo and Felícitas organized a group of Mexican parents to protest the segregation of their children in the shabbier school. They sent a letter to the board of education demanding that the schools be integrated, but their request was flatly denied.

Gonzalo continued to petition school district administrators. Worn down by his persistence, the superintendent finally agreed to admit the Méndez children to the Anglo school. But the Méndezes rejected his offer. The school would have to admit all Chicano children in the community or none.

The Méndezes hired a civil rights attorney, David Marcus, who had recently won a lawsuit on behalf of Mexican Americans in nearby San Bernardino seeking to integrate public parks and pools. Gonzalo and Felícitas also learned that parents in other school districts had been fighting against segregation. Marcus suggested that they join forces, and on March 2, 1945, the Méndezes and four other families filed a class action suit against the Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modena, and Santa Ana boards of education on behalf of Mexican American children attending segregated, inferior schools.

The Méndezes threw themselves into the trial preparations. Gonzalo took a year off from work to organize Latinos and gather evidence. Every day, he and Marcus drove across Orange County’s patchwork of vegetable farms and citrus groves, stopping in the colonias. They knocked on doors and tried to convince Mexican American parents and their children to testify in court.

It was no easy task. Some workers feared their Anglo bosses might fire them if they testified. Or worse, they’d be deported. But, slowly, Gonzalo and Marcus built their case. Meanwhile, Felícitas took over the operation of the farm. In her spare time, she organized a group of local Latino parents to support the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

During the trial, defense attorney Joel Ogle argued that the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson had given legal sanction to racial segregation, provided that the separate facilities for different races were equal. Furthermore, Ogle maintained, there were sound educational and social advantages to segregated schooling. The “Mexican schools” gave special instruction to students who didn’t speak English and were unfamiliar with American values and customs. Such “Americanization” programs benefited both Anglos and Mexicans, Ogle argued.

But this rationalization was undermined by the testimony of 9-year-old Sylvia, 8-year-old Gonzalo, and 7-year-old Geronimo Méndez. All spoke fluent English, as did many other children attending the Hoover School. Further testimony revealed that no language proficiency tests had been given to Chicano students; rather, enrollment decisions were based on last names and skin color.

The racist underpinnings of such “Americanization” programs became apparent when James Kent, superintendent of the Garden Grove School District, took the stand. Under oath, Kent said he believed that people of Mexican descent were intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior to European Americans. Even if a Latino child had the same academic qualifications as a white counterpart, the superintendent stated, he would never allow that child to enroll in an Anglo school.

Appalled by Kent’s blatant bigotry, U.S. District Court Judge Paul McCormick ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on February 18, 1946. It was his opinion that segregation “fosters antagonisms in the children and suggests inferiority among them where none exists.” Because separate schools created social inequality, he reasoned, they were in violation of students’ constitutional rights. He also pointed out that there was no sound educational basis for separating Anglo and Mexican students since research showed that segregation worked against language acquisition and cultural assimilation.

The four Orange County school boards filed an appeal. But, by then, the Méndez lawsuit had drawn national attention. Civil rights lawyers in other states were watching the proceedings closely. For half a century, they had been trying to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, and they thought Méndez just might be the test case to do it.

Among those following the suit was a young African American attorney named Thurgood Marshall. He and two of his colleagues from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People submitted an amicus curiae—“friend of the court”—brief in the appellate case. Among the other groups submitting amicus briefs were the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the Jewish Congress.

On April 14, 1947, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the lower court decision. The court stopped short, however, of condemning the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. The NAACP and other groups eagerly waited for Orange County school officials to file an appeal that would bring the case before the Supreme Court. But lawyers for the schools read the writing on the wall: Mainstream public opinion had shifted, and the era of segregation was coming to a close. The defense decided not to appeal the decision further. An opportunity to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson would have to wait.

Even if it would not rewrite federal law, Méndez v. Westminster had a significant regional impact. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the legal victory sent ripples of change throughout the Southwest. In more than a dozen communities in California alone, Mexican Americans filed similar lawsuits. Chicano parents sought and won representation on school boards and gained a voice in education. The decision also prompted California Gov. Earl Warren to sign legislation repealing a state law that called for the segregation of American Indian and Asian American students.

Seven years later, the NAACP did find a successful test case to reverse Plessy v. Ferguson. Marshall argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka before the U.S. Supreme Court, presenting the same social science and human rights theories he had outlined in his amicus curiae brief for the Méndez case. Former Gov. Warren, who had been appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote the historic opinion that ended the legal segregation of students on the basis of race in American schools in 1954.

In September of 1947, Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., and Geronimo Méndez enrolled at the 17th Street School in Westminster without incident. Integrated schools also opened that fall in Garden Grove, El Modena, and Santa Ana. Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez quietly resumed their work. At the time, neither really considered the full impact of their legal victory; they were content to have righted a wrong in their community and to have protected their children’s future. In 1964, Gonzalo Méndez died of heart failure. Felícitas continued to live in Southern California until her death in 1998.

In Santa Ana—one of the districts named in the Méndez desegregation lawsuit more than 50 years ago—a new school opened in 2000 honoring Gonzalo and Felícitas, two civil rights pioneers in the continuing struggle to provide equal educational opportunities for all of America’s children.

Excerpted from A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America, edited by Maria Fleming. Copyright © 2002 by Maria Fleming. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press.


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