Law & Courts

Memories of Mendez v. Westminster

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 17, 2010 2 min read
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StoryCorps has captured what Sylvia Mendez remembers of a federal court case, Mendez v. Westminster, concerning access to high-quality schooling for Latino children.

When they weren’t able to enroll their children in an all-Anglo school in California in the 1940s, Felicitas Mendez, a native of Puerto Rico, and her husband Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant, fought back. They filed a court case on behalf of 5,000 Latinos against four school districts in Orange County. Sylvia, now 73, is their daughter. StoryCorps recorded an audio clip of her conversation about the case with her younger sister, Sandra Mendez Duran, 59. (Click on the eighth audio clip at this link.) Sylvia remembers spending a lot of time in court as a child and only understanding the impact of the case after an Anglo boy made rude remarks to her at school, and her mother then explained to her what the family had been fighting for.

In 1946, a federal judge in the case rejected the argument that schools for Latinos and Anglos were “separate but equal.” He ruled that the school districts had to be open to all school children “regardless of lineage.”

What I found interesting about this memory snapshot was that the Mendez couple didn’t talk freely about the court case within their family as their daughters matured into adulthood. That was also the case with Lidia and Jose M. Lopez, natives of Mexico who were involved in Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court case that gave undocumented immigrants the right to get a free K-12 education in the United States. Some of their children, who were plaintiffs in Plyler v. Doe, had their memories about the case jogged for the first time in their adult lives when reporters asked to interview them in 1994, more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled in the case.

Sandra Mendez Duran says in the StoryCorps clip that she first learned about her parents’ involvement in Mendez v. Westminster when she took a course in college in Chicano history and read about the case in a textbook.

Sandra said her mother told her she hadn’t talked a lot about the case because she didn’t want to appear that she was bragging about it. But I wonder if something else was going on, such as that she didn’t want to talk about a time of heavy stress on the family.

It can’t be easy to stand up for one’s civil rights in federal court.

StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit that preserves the stories of Americans’ lives.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.