Felicitas Mendez moved with her family from Puerto Rico to live in the states when she was a child. As an adult, she lived in Orange County in Southern California with her Mexican-born husband.
When she and her sister-in-law went to enroll their children in their local school in 1943, the Mendez children were rejected. Their cousins, who had lighter skin and a surname which was not as obviously Hispanic, were allowed to enroll. The Mendez children were sent home.
Mendez, her husband, other community members, and United Latin American Citizens (LUCAC) banded together to sue four California school districts in 1944. Their win in 1946 influenced the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which ended legal segregation throughout the United States in 1954.
Google celebrated the beginning of Hispanic American Heritage month with a tribute to Felicitas Mendez.
The case which Mendez spearheaded, Mendez v. Westminster, established that “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.” The decision inspired the Anderson Bill in 1947, which ended legal segregation in California schools.
Mendez vs. Westminster
The suit against the school districts claimed that school segregation violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. However, Plessy vs. Ferguson had already established that segregation was legal as long as an equal alternative (“separate but equal”) was provided. A similar ruling had been made in California courts in 1874. The school districts took this standard as their major point, even though it was clear that the “white schools” were superior to, rather than equal to, the schools where other students attended with respect to resources.
As it happened, California at that time had a law that specifically forbade children of Native American, African-American, and “Mongolian” (understood to include Japanese and Filipino) heritage from attending “white” schools, but Latin American children were not mentioned in that law. Gonzalo Mendez, Felicitas Mendez’s husband, was born in Mexico. Mendez v. Westminster focused on the plight of Latin American children, and in 1946 filed a class action suit on behalf of the Mendez children and 5,000 other Latin American students. The schools, they argued, had overstepped by refusing to enroll children who were not legally barred from attending “white schools.”
Felicita Mendez took over management of their family farm (which ultimately belonged to a Japanese-American family who were at that time in an internment camp) so that Gonzalo could focus on the court case. She also testified in court, saying, “We always tell our children they are Americans.” They won their case, but it was appealed to a higher court.
For the appeal, the American Jewish Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, the Japanese American Citizens League, Thurgood Marshall, and the Attorney General of California filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Mendez. The appeal failed, and Mendez became the first successful school desegregation case in the nation.
The Anderson Bill
In the 1940s, school segregation was common all over the country, but people were beginning to question the rightness of these laws. California legislators were working on desegregation bills at that time. Inspired by the Mendez case, they moved ahead to strike down laws requiring segregation of Black, Asian, and Native American students.
Governor Earl Warren signed the Anderson Bill into law on June 19th, 1947. It was the first State school desegregation bill in the United States, and made California the first State to end school segregation. Earl Warren was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when that court heard the Brown vs. Board of Education case which desegregated schools in every State.
The Mendez case was the first that argued that segregation was wrong even if the schools were equal.
Felicitas Mendez organized the parent groups that provided the impetus for the case action against the Orange County schools.
“I’m proud that at least we had the courage to do it,” she said, “to fight not for our children, but for the other children, and their children and their children.”
Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 in recognition fo her work for civil rights, continuing her mother’s fight for “todos los niños.”