By Joseph Deinlein

The Daily Item

LEWISBURG -- If it weren't for Sylvia Mendez's parents, the arguments brought forth in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated schools nationwide might not have ever been heard.

But thanks to the lawsuit they brought, Mendez v. Westminster, Sylvia Mendez was able to attend the same school as white children. And she built upon that advantage, granted to all children in California in 1946 after the case was upheld by an appellate court, to become a successful nurse.

Now she's fighting to ensure all American children, especially those of color, understand the great gift they've been given in terms of educational resources.

"We are so blessed, then to drop out of school and waste it," Mendez said. "They need to be reminded that we are so fortunate to have this free education we have. Other countries they have to pay for it."

On Feb. 15, President Obama will present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But before that, she'll be speaking Tuesday at Bucknell University's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration "Beloved" dinner.

Mendez's keynote talk, "My Legacy: Mendez vs. Westminster," is a the result of a promise she made to her mother, Felicitas, who died in 1998.

Shortly before Mendez's mother died, she told her daughter that no one knew about the case filed by her and her husband, Gonzalo, on behalf of her and her two younger brothers, as well as 5,000 other Latino children living in Orange County, Calif., in 1945.

Mendez was only 8 years old when her father and mother filed suit against the school district in Westminster, Calif. Gonzalo's sister, Sally Vidaurri, tried to enroll Mendez and her two brothers, as well as her own children, in 17th Street Elementary.

The school, described as being in a row of palm and pine trees and with a lawn lining the school's brick and concrete facade, was next door to Mendez's home.

The principal there refused to let the Mendez children in, but told Vidaurri her own children could enroll because they had a French-sounding last name and were lighter skinned.

"The French occupied Mexico at one time," Mendez recalled.

Segregation laws required the Mendez children go to Hoover Elementary, described as a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city's Mexican neighborhood.

After checking it out with the principal for himself, Gonzalo persuaded four other Mexican-American families to file suit against not only Westminster, but also the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena (now eastern Orange) school districts.

The court ruled in favor of the families, but the districts appealed.

Thanks to a few interesting quirks of fate, the case became the seed that led to nationwide desegregation.

In the appeal, several amicus or "friend of the court" briefs were filed on behalf of the families, including one from the NAACP. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, offered one of those briefs.

Once the appellate court upheld the lower court's ruling in 1946, the governor of California used it as a reason to desegregate all schools in the state.

The governor at the time was Earl Warren, who eventually became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and heard the arguments during Brown v. Board.

"He had already desegregated California," Mendez said. "The wording used in desegregating the nation was almost same as what he used in California."

To keep her promise to her mother, Mendez focuses almost entirely on education.

And in her view, schools are more segregated now than they were in 1945.

Yes, in the eyes of the law, the schools are desegregated. But she uses two schools in California named after her mother and father as an example of how they are not desegregated in fact.

"They are now about 99 percent Latino," she said. "What does that tell you?"

Aside from pointing out the racism and failures created by what she calls the "evil of de facto segregation," she is volunteering her time to work with students, parents and educators to find solutions.

She is doing what she can to remind students what was fought for so they can go to school and, ultimately, reach the American Dream.

Perhaps the problem is that it does take hard work, especially when you start at a disadvantage.

"When I was in college, I worked in a cannery from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., then did nursing school from 7 until 3," she said. "I know it can be difficult and very hard, but if you persevere and have a goal that can be reached, education can bring them a wonderful educated life."

That is one reason why she is honored to be speaking in relation to Martin Luther King, whom she called one of her heroes. Through his teaching of achievement through nonviolence and education, he saw the way to a wonderful life.

She'll tell that to those at Tuesday's dinner, many of whom will mentor the next generation, and remind them of their role in the ongoing struggle.

"They're the future of our country," she said. "It will be up to them to figure out what to do."

Recommended for you