Sylvia Mendez overcame many obstacles throughout her life growing up in a time of injustice and segregation. When Mendez was eight years old, she and her brothers were denied admission into a school due to the color of their skin.
Furious with this outcome, her parents decided to stand up against the establishment with four other families of Latino decent by their side who had dealt with similar inequalities. Their case, Mendez vs Westminster, paved the way to integration of public schools in California, making history that many people today are unaware of.
Mendez’s father, Gonzalo Mendez, was forced to leave school in the fifth grade to work on his family’s farm due to financial trouble. Gonzalo Mendez and Mendez’s mother, Felicitas Mendez, knew they would do anything in their power to give their daughter better education opportunities than they had in their childhood.
When their children were facing inequalities, the parents of Mendez decided to hire David Marcus, a lawyer who was winning similar cases at the time. The Mendez family, along with the help of the Gomez, Palomino, Estrada and Ramirez families, filed the lawsuit against the Orange County school districts. “Once we went to court, it wasn’t just Latinos fighting, everyone joined in to fight,” Mendez recalled. Mendez vs Westminster went to court in 1945, and in 1946 Judge Paul J. McCormick sided with the families- without hesitation. Although McCormick ruled in favor, the school district appealed the case. It was not until 1947 when Governor Earl Warren decided to integrate the schools of California.
This was an exceptional win for not only the Mendez family and the others who stood by them, but every Latino and minority family of the future. When remembering back to the fight for their freedom Mendez stated, “we were fighting because under God we are all equal.”
Before Mendez’s mother passed away, she asked Mendez to tell people about the case and their family’s story. She wanted people to know that this case was an immense part of the history of California. Mendez has been fulfilling this goal for the past twenty five years, traveling around the world to pass on the incredible story of Mendez vs Westminster.
In 2011, Mendez was awarded the Medal of Freedom along with the National Hispanic Hero Award in 2018, finally being recognized for all the importance her family had in ending segregation and injustice in public schools.
Mendez ended her speech with instrumental advice for the students of Cypress College and their futures. “There’s nothing that can keep you from being that engineer, that professor… all you have to do is settle on that dream and you can do it.”