Mendez v. Westminster, Mexican American Civil Rights, School Desegregation



by Angel Tenez - 2/25/2011

WASHINGTON, DC — Last week at the White House, President Obama awarded 15 outstanding individuals our country's most valued civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among the recipients was Sylvia Mendez of Fullerton, CA. It wouldn't be an exageration to say that there are many in the Latino American community who have waited over half a century for this type of event recognition.

While most people in the United States are very familiar with the historic school desegregation court case known as, Brown v. Board of Education, the great majority of the American population is equally unaware of the legal battle officially named: Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District et al. This is unfortunate, especially to those who value the importance of equal access to quality education for every member of our society, in addition to the necessity for better accuracy in the representation of American history in our textbooks. Since, the court case usually known more simply as Mendez v. Westminster, of which Sylvia Mendez was a central figure, preceeded the famous Brown v. Board of Education case by nearly a decade. It is the later more famous case that's very often labeled as the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Background on Segregation of the Mexican American Child in Southern CA Schools

Certainly, it is universally known that the cornerstone for the advancement of any progressive society is an ability to educate all the members of its population. Likewise, the need for access to quality education is crucial for the advancement of any specific cultural group. Just like the American states of the Deep South which had denied access to quality education for blacks; Latinos, as well as other wholly Native Americans, Asians, and the physically disabled, were all denied access to education in many of the Western states and regions of the Southwest.

Segregation and the denial of quality education for many of the ethnic children in the Western states was a norm. An example of the vitriol and intentionally discriminatory laws of the West Coast can be seen in a decree of the California State Supreme Court which in 1880 stated that public schools must admit all children except for "children of filthy or vicious habits." In practice, this most usually meant solely the children of Mexican and Chinese immigrants. With regard to the Mexican American, it most often meant simply speaking Spanish or even just eating the foods of our native cuisine. Ever since 1850, when California was officially gained from Mexico to become the 31st American state, the ruling white population has always been troubled with the so-called 'problem' in knowing how to specifically deal with the Mexican American community. Because the overall diversity of physical appearances and characteristics within the Mexican American community varies so greatly, some members of the population can appear very light-skinned and "white" while others can appear very dark-skinned and "not". For whatever reasons it may have been, many of the legislatures of the Western states initially classified Mexican Americans as whites. Some speculate that this may have been done to attract more white settlers in the West by bolstering the white population's numbers, thus ensuring more federal dollars. Others have suggested it was an attempt to appease the then powerful native landowners, such as the Californios, who at the time owned grand expansive ranchos; which would nonetheless, also eventually be lost to the newly ruling federal, state, and local governments, in addition to an extensive loss of their lands due to the massive influx of new arrivals from the Eastern states - who were often times little more than mere squatters.

Because the dialogue of the struggle for civil rights of all people in the United States is most usually confined to the experience of African Americans and to a lesser degree that of women and full-blooded Native Americans only, it is difficult for the average person educated in the overwhelming majority of most American schools to fully appreciate and acknowledge

Pres. Obama awards Sylvia Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom