Sylvia was at the center of Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County, the groundbreaking case that would bring about the end of school segregation in California. It also sparked the Brown v. Board of Education decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, which began the end segregation across the nation.
Yet so many do not know the family that pivoted social change and gave it the edge that it needed.
Sylvia Mendez’s story begins as a little girl in Westminster, California, in 1945. She went to school at a rundown building next to a cow pasture. She wanted to attend “the beautiful school” with the “nice playground” that the other children went to. But she wasn’t allowed because she was Mexican American.
Sylvia recalled the conditions to be terrible. “All of our books and desks were used and beat up. Boys learned stuff to prepare them for vocational work, and we learned sewing and home economics. It was like they were preparing us, the girls, to become maids.”
As a 9-year-old girl, Syliva’s life was already predetermined. And her classmate’s education was already dominated by the stigmas and prejudices the country and their families faced during that time. According to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the segregation of Mexican Americans from schools was far more common before this case.
Sylvia was in the third grade when her parents mounted a legal challenge to the school district’s segregation practices. She was denied registering for the school in the neighborhood and told to go to Mexican school. Her father, Gonzalo Mendez, and four other families petitioned for their children’s right to a quality education.
In the ongoing legal proceeding, her family was met with an offer that if they dropped the lawsuit, Sylvia and her brother could attend her neighborhood school. But this deal was offered only to them which meant the other Mexican American students would not have access to the same opportunity. Her family rejected the offer.
The Mendez family won in federal court in 1946, and again in 1947, after the school district mounted an appeal.
The Mendez family valued this moment. At the time, Sylvia thought they were fighting so I could go to the nice, pretty school. But a message from her mother highlighted the significance of the case. “She explained, it wasn’t just about me or our family,” Mendez recalled about her mother. “It wasn’t about the beautiful school. The fight was so that all the kids would be treated equally.”
Decades later, President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez on February 15, 2011. In 2007, the Mendez case was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp. In 2018, the Berkeley Unified School District voted and changed the name of LeConte Elementary School to Sylvia Mendez Elementary School.