Prominent Latina activist Sylvia Mendez speaks via Zoom to La Puente High students – Daily News

Years before Brown vs. the Board of Education desegregated schools in the United States, a small contingent sued to give children equal education opportunities in California regardless of their race or color.

Sylvia Mendez bears the last name of the plaintiffs — her parents — and is still telling their story 75 years later.

Mendez spoke to a classroom of La Puente high school seniors, teachers and administrators on Monday, May 3, to discuss her experiences during the court cases, the importance of education and to highlight her parents’ efforts which ultimately ended legal segregation in California schools.

“I’m just the storyteller,” Mendez said. “I’m not the one that did any of this. It was them.”

Mendez, however, did indeed take on a role in the story of desegregation that many people don’t recognize. Her family moved to Westminster during World War II when they rented a house from a Japanese-American family the United States government interned in a relocation camp. A local elementary school turned her and her family away when they tried to enroll her and her siblings because they weren’t white, so she had to attend the “Mexican school” with other Latino children.

Students used tattered, hand-me down books at this school and children received blows with rulers if they spoke Spanish in the classroom. Mendez remembers one incident in which another child accidentally touched an electrified fence meant to keep out cows from a neighboring dairy. A teacher had to run and ask the farmer next door to turn off the fence, Mendez said,  because the electricity locked the girl’s hand to the fence.

“It was all dirt,” Mendez said. “We didn’t have a playground, we didn’t have swings, we didn’t have anything to play with. It was just terrible.”

Sylvia’s parents wanted her to get a better education, so they found a lawyer and sued the school district for the right to attend. The schools in California finally desegregated in 1947 after several years of litigation and an appeal by the school district.

Mendez said she remembered a moment in court when she and other children stood before a judge to show they were clean enough to go to school with white children because the Westminster superintendent contented in a legal brief that Mexican children simply weren’t.

Wesley Perez, an AP U.S. History and AP Government teacher at La Puente High School, said he organized the event because students needed to hear Mendez’s message after a year of challenges brought on by COVID-19.

“Her words were exactly what they needed to hear this year,” Perez said. “It would’ve hit different next year. It would’ve hit different two years ago. But this year, they needed to hear that.”

This year Perez’s students needed to hear Mendez’s message, but few people even know who she is or what her family fought for. Mendez told a story where her own sister didn’t know what the role her family played.

“My sister is 14 years younger than me,” Mendez said. “She went to Riverside College, and she was reading “North of Mexico” by Carey McWilliams and she read about it in a book because no one would talk about it.”

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