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Mendez v Westminster School District of Orange Co. Latino Civil Rights Pioneers April 14, 1947

Sylvia Méndez and her Mexican-born father and Puerto Rican-born mother helped lead the fight for equal protection, human dignity, and freedom, and against discrimination in public schools in California and beyond. On April 14, 1947, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down discrimination against students on the basis of “Mexican and Latin descent or extraction.” The Court of Appeals upheld the  the lower court decision protecting  students of “Mexican and Latin descent or extraction” or with a “Latinized or Mexican name,” or “non-English-speaking school children of Mexican ancestry or descent.” The case was a class action on behalf of 5,000 similarly situated children. The decision helped end segregation of Latino, Native American, and Asian children in the state.

The Mendez case paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education in the US Supreme Court in 1954. According to NAACP LDF attorney Robert L. Carter, who drafted the brief, Mendez was “a model for the brief eventually in Brown vs. Board of Education, which I wrote, so that’s the link between Westminster and Brown.”

What’s less acknowledged is the fact that Méndez is an important part of the civil rights movement for all Latinos, including Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. According to Sylvia Méndez, “We didn’t have that divide Mendez vs. Westminster, which not many people are aware of…it wasn’t just the Mexicans in the court case. We also had [Jan Malban] who were also Puerto Rican, who were also friends of my family, and there were two other Puerto Rican families who were part of the Mendez vs. Westminster case aside from us….”

The Méndez family retained and paid David Marcus, a civil rights attorney, because he successfully represented Puerto Ricans and Mexicans who had been segregated in the public parks and pools of San Bernardino.

The Méndez family lived in the community because they leased a farm from the Munemitsus family, a Japanese family who was interned at Poston, AZ.

Sylvia Méndez received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012.

In 1931, a state court judge struck down segregation of Mexican American students in public schools in Lemon Grove, CA, in the Superior Court for the State of California in San Diego County. This is said to be the first successful school desegregation case in the nation.

Latin Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants began pursuing civil rights strategies for equal access to education beginning in the early 20th Century, leading to the canonical victory in Brown. Early civil rights groups included the NAACP, LDF, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Alianza Hispano-Americana.

Mendez v Westminster School District of Orange County, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc), aff’g 4 F.Supp. 544 (DC SDCA 1946)

Sylvia Mendez,

Suset Laboy, Meet Felicitas “La Prieta” Mendez: Pioneer in the Struggles for Desegregation, Centro Voices e-Magazine

Robert R. Alvarez, Jr., The Lemon Grove Incident, The Journal of San Diego History, San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, Spring 1986, Volume 32, Number 2, reporting on Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Diego, Petition for Writ of Mandate No. 66625, February 13, 1931, and Conclusions of Law, March 31, 1931.

Joyce Kuo, Excluded, Segregated and Forgotten: A Historical View of the Discrimination of Chinese Americans in Public Schools, 5 Asian Am. L.J. 181 (1998)

Jeanne M. Powers, On Separate Paths: The Mexican American and African American Legal Campaigns against School Segregation, 121 American Journal of Education 29 (2014)