You Asked, ‘Get That Education!’
Photo: Alain Jehlen
A desegregation pioneer speaks out.
Sylvia Mendez made history as an eight-year-old. When local officials refused to admit her to an all-White California public school in 1943, her parents went to federal court and won at the Appeals Court level, in a precursor to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Now retired from a career in nursing, Mendez devotes much of her time to speaking at schools.
Melanie Horton, a teacher in Okinawa, asks: How did the White children treat you?
I walk into the school with all the little White children, and the teacher says, “Welcome, Sylvia! Children, we have a new person. Her name is Sylvia Mendez. Can everybody say hi?” Everybody says hi. But [when] the bell rings and we go out to play in the schoolyard, this little White boy says, “You don’t belong in this school. Mexicans are not allowed.” So I was crying, and I go home and tell my mother I don’t want to be in that school. They don’t want me. My mother tells me, “Sylvia, you’re just as good as that little boy.”
But the other children treated you better?
A girl invited me to her party at her home, and then the other children, when they would have birthday parties, invited us. So when I talk to kids in elementary schools, I say, “You were not born with this instinct to hate. We don’t have to be that way because we are of one race—the human race.”
Professor Theresa Montaño of California State University Northridge asks: Your parents’ dream of equal education—how is that going? Hispanics are the most segregated group in America.
I can’t believe it: We’re more segregated now than in the 1940s! The two schools named after my mother and father are almost 99 percent Latino. But we have so many people working towards righting this wrong again. It can be done.
Faith Mowoe, a teacher in Rialto, California, who has studied your case with her students, asks: How would you reach Hispanic and African-American students who do not fully appreciate the importance of getting the education their ancestors fought for?
I go to schools and say, people have fought for you and will continue to fight for you, but you need to get that education!
My parents fought. They gave me this fabulous life that we have here in the United States, where you go to school, get educated, and work very hard at whatever it is you want. Mine was nursing. You’re not going to get rich as a nurse, but the rewards are wonderful. It’s like teachers: You’re not going to get rich, but you’re teaching people who are our future—maybe someone who will become President. As a nurse you’re going to be healing that person who’s going to be President!