National Hispanic Heritage Month begins in the U.S. on September 15, celebrating the history, culture, heritage, and achievements of Hispanic and Latino Americans. To mark the occasion, Google is releasing a Google Doodle honoring Felicitas Mendez, a Puerto Rican business owner and civil rights pioneer who was instrumental in desegregating U.S. public schools.
Felicitas Gómez Martínez de Méndez (1916 – April 12, 1998) was a Puerto Rican who was a pioneer of the American civil rights movement. In 1946, Mendez and her husband led an educational civil rights battle that changed California and set an important legal precedent for ending de jure segregation in the United States. Their landmark desegregation case, known as Mendez v. Westminster, paved the way for meaningful integration, public school reform, and the American civil rights movement.
Mendez (birth name: Felicitas Gómez) was born in the town of Juncos in Puerto Rico. The Gomez family moved from Puerto Rico. There they faced, and were subject to, the discrimination which was then-rampant throughout the United States. Felicitas and her siblings were racialized as “black.”
When she was 12 years old, the family moved to Southern California to work the fields – where they were racialized as “Mexican.” In 1936, she married Gonzalo Mendez, an immigrant from Mexico who had become a naturalized citizen of the United States. They opened a bar and grill called La Prieta in Santa Ana. They had three children and moved from Santa Ana to Westminster and leased a 40-acre asparagus farm from the Munemitsus, a Japanese-American family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. Although the farm was a successful agricultural business venture, it was still a period in history when racial discrimination against Hispanics, and minorities in general, was widespread throughout the United States.
SCHOOL SEGREGATION IN CALIFORNIA
In the 1940s, there were only two schools in Westminster: Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary. Orange County schools were segregated and the Westminster school district was no exception. The district mandated separate campuses for Hispanics and Whites. Mendez’s three children Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr. and Jerome Mendez, attended Hoover Elementary, a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city’s Mexican neighborhood, along with the other Hispanics. 17th Street Elementary, which was a “Whites-only” segregated school, was located about a mile away. Unlike Hoover, the 17th Street Elementary school was amongst a row of palm and pine trees and had a lawn lining the school’s brick and concrete facade.
Realizing that the 17th Street Elementary school provided better books and educational benefits, Mendez and her husband Gonzalo, decided that they would like to have their children and nephews enrolled in there. Thus, in 1943, when her daughter Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old, she accompanied her aunt Sally Vidaurri, her brothers and cousins to enroll at the 17th Street Elementary School. Her aunt was told by school officials that her children, who had light skin, would be permitted to enroll – but that neither Sylvia Mendez nor her brothers would be allowed because they were dark-skinned and had a Hispanic surname. Mrs. Vidaurri stormed out of the school with her children, niece and nephews, and recounted her experience to her brother Gonzalo and her sister-in-law.
MENDEZ V. WESTMINSTER
Mendez and her husband Gonzalo took upon themselves the task of leading a community battle which would change the California public education system, and set an important legal precedent for ending segregation in the United States. Mendez tended the family’s agricultural business, giving her husband the much-needed time to meet with community leaders to discuss the injustices of the segregated school system. He also spoke to other parents, with the intention of recruiting families from the four Orange County communities into a massive, countywide lawsuit. Initially, Gonzalo received little support from the local Latino organizations – but finally, on March 2, 1945, he and four other Mexican-American fathers from the Gomez, Palomino, Estrada, and Ramirez families filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts — Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena (now eastern Orange) — on behalf of about 5,000 Hispanic-American schoolchildren. During the trial, the Westminster school board insisted that there was a “language issue,” however their claim fell apart when one of the children was asked to testify. She testified in a highly articulate English – thus demonstrating that there was no “language issue,” because most of the Hispanic-American children spoke English and had the same capacity for learning as their white counterparts.
On February 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs. However, the school district appealed. Several organizations joined the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the ACLU, American Jewish Congress, Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP which was represented by Thurgood Marshall. More than a year later, on April 14, 1947, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor of the Mexican families. After the ruling was upheld on appeal, then-Governor Earl Warren moved to desegregate all public schools and other public spaces as well.
Mendez’s children were finally allowed to attend the 17th Street Elementary school, thus becoming one of the first Hispanics to attend an all-white school in California. However, the situation was not easy for their daughter Sylvia. Her white peers called her names and treated her poorly. She knew that she had to succeed after her parents fought for her to attend the school.
Mendez v. Westminster set a crucial precedent for ending segregation in the United States. Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed a Supreme Court justice in 1967, became the lead NAACP attorney in the 1954 Brown case. Marshall’s amicus brief filed for Mendez on behalf of the NAACP contained the arguments he would later use in the Brown case.
The Mendez case also deeply influenced the thinking of the California governor at the time, Earl Warren. This proved to be critical because eight years later in 1954, when the Brown case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren was its presiding member as the Chief Justice, and Thurgood Marshall argued the case before him.
Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964 at the age of 51, unaware of the enormous long-term impact that Mendez v. Westminster would ultimately have on the U.S.
On Sunday, April 12, 1998, Felicitas Mendez died of heart failure at her daughter’s home in Fullerton, California. She was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California. She is survived by four sons: Victor, Gonzalo, Jerome and Phillip; two daughters, Silvia Mendez and Sandra Duran; 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
The success of the Mendez v. Westminster case made California the first state in the nation to end segregation in school. This paved the way for the better-known Brown v. Board of Education seven years later, which would bring an end to school segregation in the entire country.
Sandra Robbie wrote and produced the documentary Mendez v. Westminster: For all the Children / Para Todos los Ninos, which debuted on KOCE-TV in Orange County on September 24, 2002 as part of their Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. The documentary, which also aired on PBS, won an Emmy award and a Golden Mike Award.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in the Los Angeles County Law Library for the opening of a new exhibit in the law library display case titled “Mendez to Brown: A Celebration.” The exhibit features photos from both the Mendez and Brown cases, in addition to original documents. In 1998, the district of Santa Ana, California honored the Mendez family by naming a new school the “Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School”.
In 2004, Sylvia Mendez was invited to the White House for the celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month. She met with President George W. Bush, who shared her story with key Democrats, including U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
On April 14, 2007, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp commemorating the Mendez v. Westminster case. The unveiling took take place during an event at Chapman University School of Education, Orange County, California commemorating the 60th anniversary of the landmark case.
On September 9, 2009 a second school opened in the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights bearing the name “Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center.” The dual school campus commemorated the efforts of the Mendez and other families from the Westminster case.
In September 2011, an exhibit honoring the Mendez v. Westminster case was presented at the Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana. This exhibit known as “A Class Act” is sponsored by the Museum of Teaching and Learning. Sylvia Mendez was a member of the exhibit planning committee along with her brother, Gonzalo.
Sylvia Mendez became a nurse and retired after working for thirty years in her field. She travels and gives lectures to educate others on the historic contributions made by her parents and the co-plaintiffs to the desegregation effort in the United States. On February 15, 2011, Sylvia Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2012, Brooklyn College awarded Sylvia Mendez an honorary degree.