WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Before there was Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, there was Mendez v. Westminster. Eighty-three-year-old Sylvia Mendez was recognized by two Orange County school districts this week.
On Tuesday, the Garden Grove Unified School District’s Board of Education recognized Mendez and the Westminster School District recognized her on Wednesday.
Mendez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana. Along with her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, the family moved to Westminster to tend a farm they were renting from a Japanese-American family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II.
Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary were only the only two elementary schools in Westminster at the time.
Hoover Elementary was a school for Mexican students and 17th Elementary School was a "whites-only” school.
Her aunt took Mendez to 17th Street Elementary.
“My aunt took us to school and I was turned away from school at that time from the white school and my father became so upset that he hired a lawyer,” said Mendez.
Her parents and four other families argued that their children along with 5,000 other children of Mexican ancestry were forced to attend separate schools in Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and El Modena School Districts in Orange County.
“I wanted to go to that white school because they had a monkey bar and a swing and the bus would come and drop us off in front of the white school and we would have to walk to the Mexican school I would think my dad fighting them and I was going to get to go to that school,” said Mendez.
Their case went all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1947 they won.
Segregation in those districts ended, and the rest of the state followed. Their case served as a precedent eight years later for Supreme Court Case Brown Versus Board of Education which ended racial segregation in all schools in the country.
The school district that once separated students based on race now embraces diversity and cultural differences. Students in Westminster schools are learning Spanish and Vietnamese on top of English.
Instead of forgetting the history that led them to this point, district leaders recognized Sylvia Mendez and her family this week for standing up for all students with this honorary sign outside the school district office.
“It gives me goosebumps. I can’t even believe something like that is finally going to happen. Trilingual education. Vietnamese, Spanish and English are students here at this school district in Westminster are able to go to school by taught trilingual education. How great is that?” said Mendez.
During the Mendez family dedication ceremony on Wednesday afternoon, the Westminster School District took the opportunity to correct its history, by thanking Mendez and her family for fighting for racial and educational equality for all students. The district dedicated a monument in front of the office on 14121 Cedarwood Avenue to ‘La Familia Mendez.’
“I know it took a village to have this done. I want to thank everybody that was at the committee, everybody that has made this possible. I am so proud, so honored and so humbled for this wonderful honor. Thank you so much,” said Mendez.
The district also named a gymnasium and boardroom after Mendez. Currently, the City of Westminster is also working on securing state and federal funds for an interactive and educational trail and monument to honor Mendez and the other families for their impact on the community and beyond.
Mendez says her parents would’ve been proud of the district’s dedication. She hopes students remember her family’s fight for equality in education to motivate themselves to study hard and achieve their American Dream.