Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How an 8-year-old Hispanic girl paved the way for desegregation

How an 8-year-old Hispanic girl paved the way for desegregation

Gonzalo Mendez’s testimony in a California courtroom was brief, but within it were layers of American history — of segregation, incarceration and inequality.

It was also the straightforward testimony of a dad who loved his daughter.

It was a Tuesday morning in the summer of 1945, and Mendez was explaining to a judge how, the previous fall, he had tried to enroll 8-year-old Sylvia and her little brothers in an Orange County public school near their home in Westminster, Ca. They were denied because they were Hispanic, he said.

Though the case never went to the Supreme Court, Mendez v. Westminster would have far-reaching consequences and help pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 ruling that ended legal school segregation nationwide.

Mendez explained to the judge that he had been born in Mexico, come to the United States as a child and become a naturalized citizen two years earlier, when he was about 30.

Why hadn’t he tried to become a citizen earlier? the judge asked him.

He had, Mendez replied, but there were long wait times. Even once he married a U.S. citizen — a Puerto Rican woman named Felicitas — which should have sped up the process, government officials kept finding problems with his application. The photos he submitted were the wrong size, or an answer to a question wasn’t thorough enough. Hence, the delay.

Mendez was an asparagus farmer, the judge noted. Did he own his own farm?

No, he replied, he rented 40 acres from a Japanese man who was being incarcerated during the ongoing world war. He also ran a neighboring farm owned by a White man, which included keeping accounting, payroll and scheduling for dozens of employees, plus selling the harvest at market.

You speak very good English, the judge told him.

Mendez explained that he and his wife spoke mostly English at home with their kids, and at work he went back and forth between English and Spanish all day long. As a child, he had attended public school through fifth grade with native English speakers. In fact, he had gone to the same Westminster school he was fighting to get his daughter into now; the district had created a segregated “American school” and an inferior “Mexican school” after he left.

Mendez had united with other Hispanic parents in Orange County whose children had been denied entry to public schools, hired the Jewish American civil rights attorney David Marcus and sued in federal district court, leading to the Los Angeles hearing that morning in 1945.

A few days earlier, Marcus had questioned the superintendent of the Westminster school district. At first, the superintendent claimed the school district planned to merge the two schools, and the problem would be solved – it was just that it was too expensive to build a newer, bigger school at the moment, wartime and all. Marcus questioned the superintendent until it became clear that there was no actual merger in the works.

Next, the superintendent claimed the schools were separated based on English-language ability, which he determined by a brief conversation on the first day of school; there were neither written tests nor records kept on how the children’s English abilities were assessed. It was true, Marcus forced him to admit, that lessons at the Spanish-language school were “retarded” — that is, not as challenging as at the main school — but if a parent thought their child’s English was good enough for the main school, they were welcome to request a transfer, he claimed. It just so happened that all such requests, like Sylvia’s, had been rejected.

Other superintendents named in the lawsuit were less subtle. One testified that regardless of English-language proficiency, Hispanic children had to be segregated because they needed additional instructions on hygiene, that they carried “lice, impetigo, tuberculosis,” and they had “generally dirty hands, face, neck, ears.” He called bilingualism a “handicap,” and said Hispanic people had inferior “ability” and “economic outlook.”

The judge didn’t buy any of those arguments, ruling in 1946 for Mendez and the plaintiffs on 14th Amendment equal-protection grounds. “Segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster [sic] antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists,” Judge Paul McCormick wrote. “The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks, and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to other public-school children regardless of their ancestry.”

The school districts appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, catching the attention of civil rights groups nationwide. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of Mendez, as did the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Citizens League. Another brief from the NAACP previewed arguments it would use a few years later in Brown v. Board of Education. The brief was written by Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who would defend the Brown family before the Supreme Court.

In 1947, the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, forcing the desegregation of White and Hispanic students in Orange County schools. In January 1948, Sylvia Mendez, now 11, and her siblings were finally allowed to enroll in the main school.

Monumental as the decision was, it came with some big caveats. Because the school districts decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling had no effect on other states. Plus, the 9th Circuit ruled on different grounds from the previous court, saying the segregation was unconstitutional only because California did not have a state law specifically segregating Hispanic children. An existing state law formally segregating Asian and Indigenous students remained in effect.

“There is argument in two of the amicus curiae briefs that we should strike out independently on the whole question of segregation, on the ground that recent world-stirring events have set men to the reexamination of concepts considered fixed,” the appeals court said. “We are not tempted by the siren who calls to us that the sometimes slow and tedious ways of democratic legislation is no longer respected in a progressive society.”

California’s governor, a son of Scandinavian immigrants and an unremarkable law student who had slowly risen in Republican politics all the way to the governor’s mansion, took notice. A few years earlier, he had been a strong advocate of the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, but now he was beginning to have a change of heart, and he’d instructed his attorney general’s office to write a brief supporting Mendez before the circuit court.

Now, in the wake of the court’s ruling, he pushed the legislature to repeal the state law segregating Asian and Indigenous children.

That governor was Earl Warren. Six years later, and despite Warren’s lack of judicial experience, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him chief justice of the United States. His Supreme Court considered Brown v. Board of Education in its first session.

In the unanimous decision written by Warren to end school segregation nationwide, there is no mention of Sylvia Mendez or her parents, but the case’s echoes are there, in Warren’s contention that even if school districts claim the schools are equally good, the existence of separate schools hinders learning and “is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group.”

“Separate education facilities are inherently unequal,” he declared.

The Mendez family was soon forgotten in the annals of law and official history. Sylvia Mendez went on to become a nurse and cared for her mother after Gonzalo’s sudden death in 1964. She also worked tirelessly to revive the story of her parents’ love and commitment to her education. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Being honored today,” she said after the ceremony, “means that my parents are being honored, my mother and father. And I feel their spirit today.”

Now 87, Mendez still lives in Orange County and regularly speaks about her family’s legacy.

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