Mendez on “Mendez”: High School Students in Boyle Heights Write About the Desegregation Case After Which Their School Is Named




IN 1943, A DECADE BEFORE Brown v. Board of Education, an Orange County farmer named Gonzalo Mendez asked his sister to take his three children along with hers and enroll them at the local elementary school. It didn’t seem like a big deal; Gonzalo himself had briefly attended that very school. Yet while his sister’s children — light-skinned, with a French last name — were admitted, his darker-skinned children were not. Gonzalo and his wife Felicitas challenged the decision, eventually filing a class-action lawsuit that would reach the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and help pave the way for the more famous case overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Yet the case remains little known outside of legal circles, and isn’t even an official part of California’s K-12 school curriculum. Now, with the help of the nonprofit organization 826LA, Ben De Leon’s students at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights have written a book that examines the legacy of the case, and the related social and cultural issues they continue to confront in a state where Latino students are more segregated than in any other.

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Mexican immigration to the United States took off in the second decade of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought about political and social turmoil south of the border, and growing restrictions against Japanese immigration created wartime labor shortages in America. By the mid-1920s, three-fourths of California farmworkers were of Mexican origin. In 1927, 17 percent of the Orange County school population was Mexican-American; by 1934, the percentage had climbed to 25 percent. Increasingly, those children attended elementary schools designated strictly for “Mexicans.” Segregation at the high school level wasn’t necessary in most places, as very few Mexican-Americans made it past the 8th grade.

Gonzalo Mendez’s family emigrated from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1919 and settled in Westminster, California. Gonzalo attended elementary school through the fifth grade, then dropped out to help support his family by working in the citrus groves. He was hardworking and enterprising. He married Felicitas in 1935 and, three years later, the young couple opened a café in Santa Ana. They prospered, buying a house and two other properties. But Gonzalo had always wanted to run his own farm. In 1943 the opportunity opened up to lease a 40-acre asparagus farm in Westminster, and he jumped on it and moved his family back to his old town.

So when, that fall, the local elementary school refused to enroll his children, they were taking on a formidable adversary: an American citizen who spoke good English, as did his children; who was deeply invested in his new country; and who had resources.

Gonzalo’s sister Soledad Vidaurri refused to enroll her own children that day. When Gonzalo heard the news, he was determined to fight, and patiently went about challenging the decision: meeting with the principal the following day, and the school board the day after that. He eventually hired David Marcus to represent him. Marcus, a civil rights attorney whose second wife was a Mexican immigrant, had recently won a case involving a segregated public swimming pool in San Bernardino.

The initial objective was simply to sue the Westminster school system. But Marcus had his sights set higher: he wanted to challenge the very notion of “separate but equal.” While local families were hesitant to join the challenge, Marcus wanted to prove a county-wide intent to segregate and, with the help of two local activists, he was eventually able to recruit four additional families for a class-action lawsuit filed in March of 1945 on behalf of the petitioners and “some 5,000 other persons of Mexican and Latin descent” from the four school districts involved.

The trial took place that July. In addition to paying Marcus’s legal fees, Gonzalo and Felicitas had formed a parents association that was active throughout the trial, and they reimbursed members for time lost in the fields.

In February of 1946, Judge Paul J.McCormick handed down his decision, a resounding victory for the plaintiffs. The language of his finding struck a direct blow to separate-but-equal: “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

Almost immediately, the county superintendent of schools filed a series of objections, and in December the case was moved to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Even before the appeals court ruled, a bill was introduced into the state legislature effectively ending segregated education in California. In April the Ninth Circuit Court upheld McCormick’s decision, albeit on narrow jurisdictional grounds that did not go to the heart of “separate but equal.” But the case garnered significant national attention, and the NAACP and ACLU, among others, filed “friend of the court” briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs.

David Marcus’s legal strategy broke new ground. In the 1930s, the NAACP had quietly begun to mount an offensive against school segregation, but had chosen to focus exclusively on the “equal” part of the separate-but-equal equation. By contrast, Marcus insisted that segregation was, intrinsically, a form of discrimination. While the resources allocated to “Mexican” schools were patently unequal to those of the white schools, Marcus chose not to press that point. Instead, he argued that the county was practicing ethnic segregation without regard to linguistic or academic ability. 

Although Thurgood Marshall signed the NAACP “friend of the court” brief, it was in fact written by assistant special counsel Robert Carter, who would go on to play a key role in future desegregation cases. His brief was a broad and sweeping attack on segregation, addressing the Mendez case, but also the long history of discrimination against blacks. “I used it as a trial run for Brown,” Carter later acknowledged.

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Jennifer McCormick is an associate professor at California State University in Los Angeles. She met Sylvia Mendez (daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas, and eight years old at the time of the case) while researching a paper tracing Felicitas’s journey from Puerto Rico to Arizona and then California — and describing how she and her family were racialized as “mulattos” in their home country, as “black” in Arizona, then as “too dark” Mexicans in California.

As it turned out, a former student of McCormick’s, Ben De Leon, was teaching history and social sciences at the Boyle Heights high school named after Felicitas and Gonzalo. She approached 826LA, a nonprofit tutoring organization that each year partners with a high school in an underserved neighborhood to produce a book-length project. She thought the Mendez school and the Mendez case would be a perfect fit, and 826LA agreed.

A series of discussions followed involving McCormick, Ben De Leon, 826LA staff, and a colleague at CSU-LA, Chris Endy. A decision was quickly made to frame the Mendez case in a broad historical context. It was especially important, everyone agreed, to incorporate the 1968 East Los Angeles walkouts. In March of that year, nearly 15,000 students walked out of their classes at Jefferson, Venice, Belmont, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Garfield high schools to protest unequal learning conditions. It was only because of the walkouts, McCormick and others insist, that awareness of Mendez began to seep into popular consciousness (at least among Latinos).

It was also clear that the current challenges faced by Boyle Heights — a largely Mexican-American neighborhood dealing with gentrification and other changes — should be on the table as well. McCormick says it was important to make visible a dual history: of exclusionary practices and of the activism countering that exclusion. In preparation for the project, students studied both the redlining that dates back to FDR’s administration, and the work of a new generation of activists seeking to expand opportunities for Latinos and other underrepresented groups.

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In 2000, Dave Eggers came out of nowhere with one of the biggest publishing successes of the year: his offbeat memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. With the help of friend and educator Nínive Calegari, Eggers plowed some of his earnings into creating a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in San Francisco. The address of the first center was 826 Valencia, in the city’s Mission District, and subsequent chapters around the country have taken on variations of that moniker. There are currently locations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Michigan, and Washington DC. Los Angeles boasts an east-side center in Echo Park, and a west-side center in Mar Vista.

All of the 826 centers serve youth from 6–18. When you log in to the website the three words that flash out are “WRITING, PUBLISHING, TUTORING,” the organization’s touchstones. The focus is on one-on-one tutoring relationships geared toward developing strong writing skills.

And on publishing. As 826LA Executive Director Joel Arquillos puts it, “We publish constantly.” Elementary school kids who visit the two centers produce a collectively written book on the spot. Other programs generate chapbooks, school newspapers, and other formats: the common ground is project-based learning that encourages young writers to take personal ownership of their work. All told, the organization serves as many as 10,000 students, and publishes up to 250 titles, each year.

One of their most ambitious initiatives is the Young Authors’ Book Project, which annually partners with an underserved high school in Los Angeles to publish a book of essays around a broad theme. The process involves collaborating with LAUSD faculty and administrators and outside consultants to conceive a project; initial presentations to the students; six weeks of intensive writing with volunteer tutors; and several weeks of editing and organizing by a student-run editorial board. The book is professionally designed, with input from the editorial board, and the finished project — in addition to being shared with student authors, their families, and the participating school — is distributed to local bookstores and libraries, and some have even made their way into college curriculums.

We Are Alive When We Speak for Justice is the 12th book published by 826LA’s Young Authors’ Book Project. The first, Rhythm of the Chain in 2005, featured a foreword by Phil Jackson. Last year’s book, Beyond the Gates & Fences, a collection of essays about career aspirations by students at Manuel Arts High School, was introduced by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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Ben De Leon recalls his students’ skepticism last December when told that they were actually going to write a book. “As the program rolled along, however, and each student realized they did have a story to tell, and that the tutors came to the table with the utmost respect and support, I think each student found his or her voice.”

 The finished pieces run the gamut from interviews with activists past and present, to essays on gentrification and the nature of ethnic identity, to fictional versions of historical events.

Sylvia Mendez wrote the foreword to the book, and was also interviewed by student Yareli Rojas. In the interview, Mendez reveals that the true import of the case didn’t hit her until years later when she took time off from her job as a nurse to take care of her ailing mother, Felicitas. As her mother shared stories about the case, Sylvia realized the enormous sacrifice and struggle involved, and also how little people knew of this history. She later dedicated her life to educating young people about past and current struggles for educational equality — an effort that in 2011 brought her to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She recalls being shy about approaching Maya Angelou, also honored that day. “I never wrote a book! I didn’t do anything!” she thought before finally getting up the courage to say hello.

Azucena Robledo interviewed Bobby Verdugo, one of the student leaders of the 1968 walkouts. In elementary school, he was a “smart and imaginative student who earned straight A’s.” Later, as a student at Lincoln High, teachers were less than encouraging and his grades suffered. The chance to take a leadership role in the walkouts reenergized him. Robert Bustos interviewed two other walkout participants: Heriberto Garza and Miguel Roura, now both teachers at Mendez. Garza was in 9th grade at the time, and recalls the “fear and apprehension” many young people felt due to the “grim prospects” most faced after high school. Roura, a college student assisting the student leaders, remembers the common practice of corporal punishment for any student caught speaking Spanish. For a while he wouldn’t speak Spanish to his own mother, even though that was the only language she knew. “It was like brainwashing,” he says.

A contemporary connection to the walkouts emerges in Kenny Coronel’s interview with UCLA Professor of Chicana/o Studies Leisy Abrego. His respect for someone who has risen in higher education is palpable. “Before the interview I had a great and fearful excitement to talk to a professor.” The interview meant even more, he says, after having recently attended a Chicano Youth Leadership Conference, where he first began to reflect deeply on his own cultural identity. It came full circle during the Mendez project when he realized that the Sal Castro Foundation that sponsored the conference was named after a high school teacher who helped students organize during the walkouts.

Daniela Elizondo interviewed Melissa Flores, a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara passionate about the educational rights of incarcerated youth. Flores’s discussion of issues such as the “school-to-prison pipeline” has inspired Daniela to look into a career in criminal justice herself. Other students interviewed an immigration lawyer, the director of a homeless shelter, and a journalist.

Ashley Lopez is one of four student authors who decided to tackle the project through the lens of fiction. Her story is written from the point of view of a boy who is turned away from the local high school for not having white features, or los rasgos de un blanco. Outside the school are two men: an activist, Gonzalo Mendez, protesting the school’s new policy of segregation, and an older man insisting that fighting injustice is pointless. When the boy gets home after the trauma of being turned away, he finds himself strangely calm. “For the first time in a long time,” he reflects, “I wasn’t troubled by the obstacles I faced. I had seen the face of change.”

The book is alive with bold and vibrant language. Throughout, one senses the creative freedom of young writers who understand this is more than a class assignment, and who feel a deep personal connection with the material.

Designer Diana Molleda chose an archival photograph of the 1st Street Bridge (which spans the LA River and connects Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo) as the cover image, and a number of the book’s entries refer to the bridge, literally and metaphorically. “Why go to Japan when I could just go across the bridge?” Anthony Lopez asks in his piece. “Every neighborhood is like stepping into a new country. This is what I like about Los Angeles.” Oscar Aguallo offers a thoughtful meditation on art as both a bridge between cultures, and between artist and viewer. He observes how the faces in a neighborhood mural don’t seem quite finished, one eye bigger than the other, or one head only partially drawn. It is, he writes, as if “the artist was trying to say that we have to complete them ourselves.”

Hector Davila’s essay “Ferguson and Me” examines the connections between different struggles for justice, and worries about the increasing militarization of the police, “so armored they look straight off the battlefield in Iraq.” Alfredo Montes’s short story about the discrimination that persists even after desegregation describes a teacher who “thought of the class as a set of crayons she had to organize by color.” Jaqueline Ramirez opens her piece with a quotation from Martin Luther King, and closes it with her own stirring call to action: “Will we die unspoken or will we live unbroken?”

At times, the emotions on the page are raw. Kenia Garcia writes movingly about the challenges faced by two cousins with autism. “I’m patiently waiting to witness the day that equality and justice enter through my cousins’ doors, while discrimination and pity burst out their windows.” Madison Ramirez shares the difficulties of being shuffled around in the foster care system. “I became a troublemaker,” she says about a period following an especially jarring move from a foster family to a group home. “I didn’t feel any true love, daughter love. I was broken in pieces. I started wondering if God is real.”

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In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 — a landmark decision that helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement, yet which has also produced uneven results — the question of implementation was the immediate sticking point. The Court only partially settled the matter the following year in its Brown II ruling which declared that school districts guilty of segregation must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” 

The vagueness of this wording allowed considerable wiggle room, and progress was slow until the mid-60s, when the courts began putting some real teeth into the mandate to desegregate. School districts couldn’t simply get away with avoiding the promotion of segregation; they had an “affirmative duty” to proactively desegregate. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Burger Court (to the surprise of many, and despite ultimately including four Nixon appointees) continued to press the case for active and affirmative desegregation. In Alexander v. Holmes, for example, the Court declared it was “the obligation of every school district to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.” 

Yet the rubber hit the road over the question of de jure versus de facto segregation — in large part a regional distinction. Desegregation was in fact more aggressively implemented in the South than in the North, where segregation wasn’t so much the result of explicit government policy as it was the byproduct of residential and other patterns. In two key decisions in 1973 and 1974, the Court attempted to draw a clear line between intent and results, and to limit its jurisdiction in the absence of provable intent.

At the time, Los Angeles itself experienced a protracted battle over desegregation and mandated busing in the form of Crawford v. Board of Education — a case that, though filed in 1963, didn’t go to trial until 1968, and wasn’t fully settled until 1981. Over numerous appeals and stays and delays, the California Supreme Court — in contrast to the federal court’s emphasis on intent — focused on results. In upholding one of the appeals, it stated that “the de facto/de jure distinction retains little, if any, significance for the children whose constitutional rights are at issue here.” Yet anti-busing forces fought back in 1979 with Proposition 1, a constitutional amendment against mandatory busing, and the state court ultimately gave up the fight.

The legal fight against de facto segregation had been lost. Desegregation, according to some studies, peaked in 1988 — after which the country has been on a steady path of resegregation. In a study released last year, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that California is now the third-most segregated state for African-American students, and the most segregated for Latino students.

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The story of the Mendez case intersects — in interesting and complicated ways — with other conflicts of the time involving racial and ethnic injustice.

It was Earl Warren, then governor of California, who enthusiastically signed the 1947 law stripping away the state’s remaining segregation statutes. In 1953 he was appointed Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and over the next 16 years — despite a previous reputation as a reliably conservative Republican — steered the Court to progressive decisions on Brown v Board of Education and numerous other era-defining cases.

Yet it was also Earl Warren who, as Attorney General of California in 1942, helped lead a groundswell of wartime paranoia that resulted in the mass internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Warren encouraged residents and law enforcement officials to watch for acts of sabotage. Early the following year, he investigated the state’s right to confiscate property belonging to Japanese, and assembled a detailed map of Japanese land ownership in the state. On February 19, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 — which, while not singling out any particular ethnic group, effectively authorized the military to proceed with the eventual internment of over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, many from California.

It was a black eye on Warren’s career, and one he largely refused to talk about. He was silent in the face of repeated appeals from those who had been interned, and despite the fact that others who had fueled anti-Japanese sentiment, including the mayor of Los Angeles, later apologized. Warren’s lone explicit apology came in a carefully guarded statement from his memoir, published posthumously. Perhaps, as some historians have speculated, his reticence reflected just how deeply he regretted his actions. 

The Mendez triumph and the travesty of Japanese-American internment cross paths in a far more direct and personal way as well. The 40-acre asparagus farm the Mendezes operated — the profits from which funded their legal challenge to school segregation — was owned by a Japanese-American family “relocated” to an internment camp in Arizona. The Munemitsus worried that if their farm was without a formal tenant, they might have trouble reclaiming it later. Gonzalo and Felicitas, still living in Santa Ana at the time, got word of the family’s predicament through their banker, and they traveled to Arizona and signed an agreement to lease the farm from the Japanese-American couple. They sold their café, rented out their house, and moved the family to Westminster. Over the next few years, Gonzalo continued to make the 250-mile trip to make sure the Munemitsus received their rent.

In 1946, the war over, the Munemitsus were finally able to return to Westminster and their farm. The Japanese-American family and the Mexican-American family worked side by side to harvest that year’s crop, and the Mendezes used the money to move back to Santa Ana and purchase another café. The decision over their case was still pending in the Ninth Circuit court, and Santa Ana’s schools had not yet been desegregated; but the family’s reputation preceded them and the children were quietly enrolled in the local “white” school.

Fittingly, on the land once farmed by the Munemitsu and Mendez families — separately, and together — now stand two public schools: the Finley Elementary and Johnson Intermediate Schools of Westminster. Sylvia Mendez, denied entry into the 3rd grade of Westminster Elementary in the fall of 1943, and Aki Munemitsu, taken out of the same 3rd grade class earlier that spring, became friends, lost touch, and later reconnected. Under the provisions of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, the Munemitsus received $20,000 in reparations and donated the entire sum to the Japanese-American Museum of Los Angeles — just across the 1st Street Bridge from Mendez High.

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How does it feel to be a published author while still in high school?

At a school assembly where the students previewed the book, and at the book’s official release on June 2 at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a few of the young authors talked about the experience.

Daniela Elizondo didn’t know too much about the criminal justice system before her interview with activist Melissa Flores. Because the youth “supposedly don’t have a long stay there,” she found out, “many juvenile centers don’t have educational programs.” Flores’s passion about making a difference “really did catch my attention,” she said. She follows current events more closely now, “especially when it comes to young people,” and this summer plans to read The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s book about the crisis of mass incarceration in America.

Kenia Garcia talked about how the nature of the project encouraged her to express herself in a deeply personal way. “I felt a lot of freedom when I was writing my piece. I wanted to write something that came out of my heart. I made it perfect in my own way.” That freedom, in turn, has left her more confident about taking risks in the future. “Taking risks gets you further.”

Kimberly Espinoza talked about freedom in a different way. “I really wasn’t interested in the project at first,” she admitted. While she realizes the Mendez case was a step forward, she feels strongly that desegregation doesn’t produce a “happy ending” for everyone. “They told me I could switch it around a bit, and I wanted to give a different view.” The creative license of a fictional story allowed her to explore that ambiguity.

Ashley Lopez also felt greater freedom going the fictional route. “I felt a short story would help me, personally, get into the character,” she said. She wanted to “pretend I was actually there at the moment … make the readers feel my pain.”

Jaqueline Ramirez emerged from the experience with more confidence than ever. “I feel I can go to any college I want, because I am a published author.” She especially enjoyed her experience working on the editorial board — even if doing so was “a lot of pressure: what if you add too much, or too little?” She is eager to learn about syntax and the finer points of writing, because they provide the tools she needs to express her point of view.

Kenny Coronel says that learning that the foundation which sent him to a Chicano leadership conference last fall was named in honor of a teacher who participated in the1968 walkouts really “opened my mind.” He says the book has fundamentally changed his self-image. “When I’m older I can tell my kids that I was part of this and read this book to them as a bedtime story. And they’ll look up to it, and maybe look up to writing as well.”

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Notes & Further Reading

The story of the Mendez case can be found in Philippa Strum’s Mendez v. Westminster (University of Kansas Press); Winifred Conklin’s Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press), a somewhat fictionalized account for young readers; and Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal (Harry N. Abrams), a children’s picture book. 

Mendez v. Westminster: For All the Children / Para Todos Los Niños is an Emmy-winning documentary about the case by Sandra Robbie. 

James Patterson’s Brown v. Board of Education (Oxford University Press) is a good summary of the troubled history of school desegregation. 

“Segregating California’s Future,” by Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, can be found at civilrightsproject.ucla.edu.

Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation (Broadway Books) examines the “restoration of apartheid schooling in America.”

Hanging on the wall of the Angeles Mesa Public Library on West 52nd Street is a mural depicting the connected histories of Mendez, Brown, and contemporary issues affecting young people of color. It was created by the artists Alma Lopez and Noni Olabisi.

At La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles, which hosted the book release, is an exhibit of the Mendez case.

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Scott Doyle is a writer based in Los Angeles.


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