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

  • La Puente High teacher Wesley Perez, activist Sylvia Mendez and students appear on Monday’s Zoom session. (Video screenshot)

  • La Puente High teacher Wesley Perez, student Berenice De Anda and activist Sylvia Mendez on Monday’s Zoom session. (Video screenshot)

  • La Puente High teacher Wesley Perez, activist Sylvia Mendez and students appear on Monday’s Zoom session. (Video screenshot)

  • La Puente High teacher Wesley Perez, activist Sylvia Mendez and students appear on Monday’s Zoom session. (Video screenshot)

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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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Mendez said she wants to change that. She is working to add her family’s court fight to California schools’ curriculum. And, though she’s run into obstacles in recent years, she continues to fight to keep her family’s legacy alive.

Mendez’s talk inspired several students at the event including Fatima Pulido who said hearing about Mendez’s time as a nurse inspired her because she aspires to the same field. And Berenice De Anda said she enjoyed listening to someone advocate for Latina women to get political.

“It was really motivating for me to hear her say that maybe one of you guys will be running for president,” De Anda laughed. “I even blushed a little.”

For her part, Mendez said she wants to impart the same lesson on students that her parents gave to her – education matters.

“You can have the American Dream here in the United States, but you have to work for it.” Mendez said. “It’s not just given to you, and you have to work for it. And one of the best ways to do it is to be educated and get a profession they want.”

Tags: News, Education, California, Immigration, Sport, Soccer, United States, Community, Westminster, Lausd, Perez, Brown, Board of Education, La Puente, LA County, Sylvia, Latina, Cypress College, Mendez, de Anda, AP Government, Top Stories LADN, Top Stories IVDB, Top Stories Breeze, Top Stories LBPT, Top Stories WDN, Top Stories SGVT, Top Stories PSN, Carey McWilliams, Sylvia Mendez, Coronavirus, Riverside College, Zoom to La Puente High, La Puente High, Wesley Perez, Berenice De Anda, La Puente High School, North of Mexico, Fatima Pulido


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