Opening the Schoolhouse Doors: Mendez v. Westminster
Sylvia Mendez and June Hernandez may have never met, but they had many things in common. Both were Mexican American girls who were just trying to attend school in Southern California. Instead of being allowed to go to the well-funded white schools in Orange County, they were sent to Mexican American public schools even when doing so required the girls to bus across the city or county. There were no laws in place that required school districts to segregate Mexican American children from white children — it was just the result of a shamefully ignorant community.
While many associate school desegregation with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas, few remember or are aware of the 1946 Orange County case Mendez v. Westminster School District. At age 9, Mendez became a part of a movement that was started by outraged families who were tired of the substandard education provided to Mexican American children. At the time, the Garden Grove Unified School District Superintendent James Kent testified that Mexican children were inferior in terms of hygiene, ability, and economic outlook. The Mendez case set a crucial precedent — that segregating schools by race was unconstitutional. Although the case only encompassed the school districts in that community, it would later serve as a precedent for other cases in California and for Brown v. Board of Education. Earl Warren, governor of California when Mendez v. Westminster was being argued, later became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The language he used in Brown v. Board of Education resembled the language used in the ruling of Mendez v. Westminster.
As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we must also use this time to reflect on the barriers that have existed and continue to exist in our communities. My grandmother, June Hernandez, was just a few years younger than Mendez and lived through the early desegregation of the same California school district. Although my grandmother was integrated into better-funded schools before high school, she still faced barriers. Despite her academic ability and willingness to learn, she was labeled by her teachers as lesser. White children refused to talk to her or the other Mexican American children. As a result of her experiences in school, we, her grandchildren, were not allowed to learn or speak Spanish at home.
My grandmother pushed me to try harder in school and to focus on my homework, and she was one of the first in my family to celebrate my decision to go on to graduate school. She reminded me of the opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have in my generation. Yes, I was a first-generation college student, and I could believe in the possibility of education past high school.
The school district that James Kent led in the 1940s? That was my school district in the 1990s and early 2000s. At the very least, my schools didn’t have administrators who said the same kinds of hateful things that people said when my grandparents were in school.
My grandmother’s courage and determination to finish school, even during times of change and ignorance, directly affected her children and grandchildren. We are who are today because of who she was and continued to be. Our access to education stems from the desire of young women and men who just wanted to go to school and who fought for equal opportunity.
And while the rhetoric on educational access has shifted, I know from personal experience that we never benefit from closing schoolhouse doors.