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Sylvia Mendez: This is What Courage Looks Like

Civil Rights Activist

Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana, California. Her family consisted of her mother, Felicitas Mendez, who was from Puerto Rico, her father, Gonzalo Mendez,  a naturalized American citizen from Mexico, and three younger siblings. The Mendezes leased a farm in Westminster, California from a Japanese American family who was forced into World War II-era internment camps in New Mexico and Colorado. Sylvia’s aunt and three cousins also moved to the farm. When it came time to enroll the children in school, Sylvia’s parents wanted her and her siblings to attend the local public school closest to their farm. Her father grew up attending that school, which was cleaner with better amenities than the run-down schools for Mexican children. However, when Sylvia’s aunt attempted to enroll the children in the school, only her cousins were allowed to enroll due to their lighter skin and French last name. While the school readily accepted Sylvia’s cousins, they refused to register her and her brothers, telling Sylvia and her brothers that since they were Mexican, they would have to enroll in the Mexican school even though they were actually half Puerto Rican and half Mexican. This discrimination became the basis for the court case Mendez v. Westminster (see below).


"They told [my aunt], 'We'll take those three, but we won't take those three,” he says, and the reason being, "We were too dark."

- Gonzalo Mendez Jr. on what school officials said to his aunt.


After graduating from high school, Sylvia attended Orange Coast Community College and California State University, Los Angeles, earning multiple nursing degrees and a certificate in public health. She started her career as a pediatric nurse, eventually moving to assistant nursing director. Sylvia worked in nursing for over 30 years before retiring and has spent much of this time traveling the world. She continues her mission of educating others about education equality through her family’s legacy, including lobbying politicians to require the inclusion of Mendez v. Westminster in California history books.

Mendez v. Westminster

At the end of World War II, California experienced an increase of over 100,000 Mexican immigrants. Across Orange County school districts, many children of Mexican ancestry, even if they were U.S. citizens, were not allowed to attend the "White” schools. Once Gonzalo Mendez learned that his children were not allowed to attend the 17th Street school where he had been a student, he decided to sue the school district. With the help of civil rights attorney David C. Marcus and four other families who also wanted to end school segregation, the Mendezes filed the class-action lawsuit, Mendez v. Westminster, on behalf of more than 5,000 Mexican American students in Orange County in 1945.


While waiting for the trial to begin, Sylvia, her brothers, and their cousins attended the Mexican school. Once the trial began, she went to court every day. In court, nine-year-old Sylvia expressed her desire to attend the White school because its playground had grass while the one at the Mexican school was a dirt field. In 1946, the Mendezes won their initial case and the school district's appeal in April 1947. The school district refused to let the children enroll in the 17th Street school until the appeal was settled.


“We weren't being taught to be smart. We were being taught how to be maids and how to crochet and how to quilt.” 

- Sylvia Mendez on her experiences attending a Mexican school.


During the trial, the Mendezes found financial and legal support from many civil rights organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, and more. Even Thurgood Marshall participated by writing a brief in support of the case. Later, Marshall would cite key aspects of Mendez v. Westminster when he argued Brown v. the Board of Education almost a decade later. 


Mendez v. Westminster was a landmark legal decision that resulted in California becoming the first state in the nation to desegregate its schools. However, since the case never went to the U.S. Supreme Court, like Brown v. the Board of Education, it remains relatively unknown. 


Books & Ebooks @ MiraCosta Library

Sylvia Mendez: Civil Rights Activist cover
Latinas Leading Schools cover
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation cover
The Kindness of Color cover
The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools cover
Confronting Suburban School Resegregation in California cover
All Deliberate Speed: Segregation and Exclusion in California Schools, 1855-1975 cover
Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation cover
Strategies of Segregation: Race, Residence, and the Struggle for Educational Equality cover
The Other American Dilemma: Schools, Mexicans, and the Nature of Jim Crow, 1912–1953 cover

Films @ MiraCosta Library

Stolen Education film cover

Stolen Education

Stolen Education documents the untold story of Mexican-American school children who challenged discrimination in Texas schools in the 1950s and changed the face of education in the Southwest. 

Education USA

School: The Story of American Public Education film cover

School: The Story of American Public Education

This four-part series, narrated by actress Meryl Streep, weaves archival footage, interviews, and more into a portrait of public education in the U.S.

We the Parents film cover

We the Parents

We the Parents chronicles California's 'parent trigger' law, which allows parents to take on a failing school, possibly firing the principal or handing it over to a charter-school company.


Based on a true story, the film follows Paula Crisostomo's peaceful walkout to protest discrimination against Mexican-Americans in her school system and illustrates the deplorable treatment of Mexican-American students in L.A. public schools.


The History of American Academic Education

This program traces the history of education in the U.S. and examines the effects of federal aid, racial integration, students’ rights, and educational reform.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities film cover

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities

This documentary tells the story of Black colleges and universities that have been haven for Black intellectuals, artists and revolutionaries and path of promise toward the American dream.

Crash Course: Civil Rights and the 1950s

John Green traces the 1950s Civil Rights movement, including important activists. He also highlights legal cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Mendez v. Westminster that served to desegregate U.S. schools.

Students and the Struggle for School Integration

Students and the Struggle for School Integration

The story of Barbara Johns and her classmates' fight for school integration resulting in the successful case - Brown v. Board of Education.