Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by AbramsKids Books
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation is a stunning, marvelously researched, written and illustrated book about an important but little known event in the history of America, California, Latinx-Americans, education and civil rights. Seven years before the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools in the entire country, Mendez v. Westminster School District was the first case to determine that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. Tonatiuh's Author's Note unpacks the layers of the Mendez case, telling readers that key roles were played by both Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren in the Mendez case. Marshall sent friend-of-the-court briefs to the judge in the case and Warren, who, at the time was the governor who signed into law the desegregation of ALL schools in California, later became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and presided over the Brown case, ruling in Brown's favor. And, while the courage of the Mendez family made segregation in schools illegal in the United States, Tonatiuh writes that, "unfortunately, a great deal of inequality - and a kind of unofficial segregation - still exists in today." A study just released by EdBuild, a non-profit organization focused on bringing common sense and fairness to the ways states fund public schools, finds that nonwhite school districts get $23 billion LESS than white districts despite serving the same number of students. And this is not just about living in poverty, as the study found that, while poor-white school districts receive $150 less per student than the national average, they are still receiving $1,500 MORE than poor-nonwhite school districts. California is among the top offenders, with predominantly nonwhite school districts (accounting for 65% of California's students) receiving 20% less funding on average than predominantly white school districts.
Tonatiuh frames the story of this important case, setting it three years after the Mendez v. Westminster School District, reminding us that prejudice, xenophobia and many forms of segregation are ever present and the fight for equality must not stop. When we first meet Sylvia, she is attending the school she was once barred from. Demoralized by the name calling, pointing and whispering, Sylvia does not want to return. She is reminded by her mother that her family fought so that she could attend a good school and have equal opportunities. Finding new strength, Sylvia returns and eventually makes friends from all different backgrounds.
Flashing back to 1944, readers learn that the Mendez family moved from Santa Ana to nearby Westminster where Gonzalo Mendez would be leasing a farm, finally his own boss. Interestingly, this farm is owned by the Munemitsu's, a Japanese family that has been sent to Poston Internment Camp, 250 miles away in Arizona. Winifred Conkling's excellent novel, Sylvia & Aki, condenses the life altering experiences of the daughters of each family into a highly readable book (with great back matter) that all children, especially Californians, should read. When Sylvia's aunt takes her, her brothers and her cousins to Westminster elementary school to register the children, they are told that Alice and Virginia, with their, "light skin and long auburn hair," and last name Viadurri, can attend. Sylvia and her brothers, with their, "brown skin and black hair," and last name Mendez, must attend "the Mexican school," despite the fact that they were born in America, speak perfect English and are the children of U.S. citizens. Unlike the well appointed, well cared for Westminster, Hoover Elementary, "the Mexican school," was a clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture. The children were forced to eat lunch outdoors, swarmed by flies and surrounded by an electric fence to keep the cows in.
Unwilling to accept this, Gonzalo Mendez began a fight that played out over several years and two court cases. The Mendez family, along with four other families, including Thomas Estrada, a WWII veteran who returned home to find that his children were not allowed to attend school with white children, filed their law suit on March 2, 1945. Tonatiuh devotes six pages to the first trial, which Sylvia and her family attended, using actual dialog from court transcripts in his text. There, she had to listen to the the superintendent of the Garden Grove school district discuss the social behavior of children sent to the Mexican school, saying, "They need to learn cleanliness of mind manner, and dress. They are not learning at home. They have problems with lice, impetigo, and tuberculosis. They have generally dirty hands, face, neck and ears." After the "inferiority" of their personal hygiene, he went on to list the inferiority of their, "scholastic ability . . . economic outlook, in their clothing, and in their ability to take part in activities of the school," as reasons for segregation.
Judge Paul McCormick took almost a year to give his decision before ruling in favor of the Mendez family. The Westminster school board's appeal was immediate and a second trial went to the state court in San Francisco. This time, the Mendez family received support from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress and many other organizations. On April 15, 1947, the Court of Appeals in San Franciscos ruled in favor of the Mendez family again. In June of that same year, governor Earl Warren signed the law that said that all children were allowed to go to school together, regardless of ethnicity, race or language.
Tonatiuh, who interviewed Sylvia Mendez for his book, includes a glossary, photographs and a fantastic bibliography. Besides a stamp celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Mendez victory, the Felícitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School opened in 2009. Quite impressively, Mendez High School boasts a 90% graduation rate, a 90% college going rate and a 20:1 student to teacher ratio. And, in 2011, Sylvia Mendez, who went to college and became a registered nurse, working for thirty-three years at a medical center in Los Angeles, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, by President Obama.