Sixty-seven years have passed since Sylvia Mendez and her two siblings were rejected from attending a predominantly white school in Orange County, but she remembers this event as if it had happened yesterday.
“My Aunt Soledad, my dad’s sister, went to enroll us and my two cousins at the school on 17th Street in Westminster. But to her surprise, they accepted her two daughters because they were light-skinned and they rejected my siblings and me because we were dark-skinned. My aunt of course left very offended and she went home to tell my dad what had happened. I still remember how she cried,” Mendez said.
This event changed the history of education for the entire country. Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia’s father, was an immigrant who was born in Chihuahua, with a strong and willful temperament. Never one to give up, he got together with four Mexican families and in 1945 they sued the city of Los Angeles against school segregation in Orange County. After an intense legal battle, the court ruled in favor of the Mexican parents on February 18, 1946. Subsequently, the case was used by lawyer Thurgood Marshall to win the historic lawsuit that prohibited racial segregation in American schools in 1954.
For many years the Mendez’ family story was forgotten, which broke Sylvia’s mother, Felicitas, who became a widow since 1964. “It was very sad for my mom to know that it was not recognized that a group of Mexicans had fought to end school segregation; that is why in 1995, three years before she passed away, she made me promise her that I would fight so that the story be known and to serve as an inspiration.”
Since then, Sylvia, who quit her job of 33 years as a nurse to take care of her mother, was determined to keep her promise and spread their story in various outlets, especially in schools.
Because Latinos drop the most out of school, Sylvia says that in her speeches, she always emphasizes how important it is for parents not to allow this to continue. “Even if they are very poor, I always ask parents to do the impossible so that their children finish their studies because this is what will allow them to progress,” she said.