A few weeks ago, the White House announced the honorees for the next Presidential Medal of Freedom awards. One of these will go to Sylvia Mendez from Orange County in southern California. Most Americans have no idea who Sylvia is and why she would be getting this major award given to U.S. citizens. She is getting the award really not for herself but for her parents, who along with other Mexican American parents in the early 1940s organized a legal challenge to the many years of public school segregation of Mexican American children in Orange County. Irrespective of where they lived, all Mexican American children had to attend the so-called “Mexican schools.”
Such schools existed not only in Orange County but also throughout southern California and throughout the Southwest where most Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants worked and lived. Local schools boards mandated in a version of de jure segregation that all children of Mexican descent had to attend Mexican schools.
These schools were not only segregated but also inferior. They were limited in the number of school years provided; they were overcrowded; they lacked books and desks and cafeterias; they focused on vocational rather than academic education; and they had too many teachers who had low expectation of their students.
School boards and school districts for years beginning in the early 20th century when these schools began to appear as mass immigration from Mexico commenced argued that they were not segregating Mexican American children because of race, but because of pedagogical concerns. They argued, for example, that since these children entered the schools only speaking Spanish that they had to be separated for a few years until they mastered English. In fact, most were never integrated with Anglo-American children.
Mexican Americans were not passive about such affronts to the dignity of their children and to their community. Beginning in the 1920s, they protested by bringing pressure to bear on school boards and by appealing to the legal system. However, the most successful effort came with the Mendez v. Westminster case that Sylvia Mendez’s parents organized with the help of other parents and with the assistance of Mexican American, African American, Asian American, and white civil rights groups.
In 1946, a federal court in California ruled that the segregation of Mexican American children in the infamous Mexican schools was unconstitutional and a violation of the students’ 14th Amendment rights. The court declared that such segregation was intentional and institutionalized. It observed that the issue of pedagogy was a smokescreen to hide clear racial prejudice. The argument that the schools had to separate Spanish-speaking children initially was a rouse since the schools failed nor did they attempt to determine which of these children could not speak English since they falsely assumed that all Mexican American children only spoke Spanish. This was not the case the court commented. But even if this were true, the court further added that it was beyond reason that it took the schools an entire elementary school experience to teach English to these children. If this were the case, something was wrong not with the children but with the schools.
While the Mendez Case did not put an end to the segregation of Mexican American children in Orange Country or other areas of the Southwest, it at least put the rule of law on the side of Mexican Americans. The case is a landmark case even though still not well known in U.S. history including legal history.
The granting of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez in honor of what her parents did over half a century ago will bring needed attention to the historic struggle by Mexican Americans and other Latinos for educational justice.
The issues of the Mendez case are as timely today as they were in the 1940s. The condition with respect to Latino educational achievement is still a crisis and compounded by the increasing number of Latinos as the largest minority in the country. What the Mendez Case symbolizes, however, is that educational justice, and indeed social justice in general, is never given freely, but one must struggle for it.