Latino sisters in landmark desegregation suit continue fight to have case taught in California schools

June 11, 2024 /

Sylvia Mendez just turned 88 years old this year and vividly remembers the day in 1943 when her aunt Soledad Viduarri took her and her brothers, Gonzalo and Gerónimo Mendez along with cousins Alicia and Virgina Viduarri to enroll them at the Seventeenth Street School in Westminster, Orange County. Mendez was 8 years old and impressed by the school’s nice playground. But only cousins Alilcia and Virginia could attend the school. Sylvia, Gonzalo, and Gerónimo were turned away. 

Her cousins were light-skinned, did not have a Latino-sounding last name, and could pass as white. Sylvia and her brothers were dark-skinned and the school told her aunt she could enroll them at the “Mexican school,” Hoover Elementary. 

“My tía said, ‘No way! I’m not letting my kids stay here!’ And she took us all back home and told my father about what happened,” said Mendez in a phone interview from her home in Fullerton in Orange County.”I always say she did a Rosa Parks stand.” 

Her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez were outraged and went down to the school with their children in tow to speak with the principal. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mendez, but we’re not allowing Latinos in the school,” Mendez recalls the principal telling her father. 

The parents fought back, hired a lawyer, and along with four other families, filed a class-action lawsuit against four Orange County school districts in 1945, claiming the practice of separate but equal was unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal treatment under the law, and segregation was a violation, they argued. 

This was an era when Mexicans and Blacks were not allowed to attend schools designated for “Whites” only. The case made its way all the way to the California Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the families. After the ruling was upheld on appeal, then-Governor Earl Warren of Bakersfield moved to desegregate all public schools and other public spaces in California. 

Sylvia Mendez became a nurse and retired after 30 years to look after her aging mother. It was her mother who pushed her to educate the world about the significance of what five Latino families had accomplished. Her cousin Alicia Mendez Anaya moved to Bakersfield as an educator. 

“My mother would say, “Nadie sabe lo que hicimos y a tú papá ni siquiera le dieron gracias antes de que muriera,” said Mendez with a sigh. This translates to, “Nobody knows what we did and nobody ever thanked your father before he died.” Her mother made Sylvia promise that she would spread the word about the case, Mendez v. Westminster. But the daughter had jitters. “I said to her, ‘Mother, I can’t do it. I’m not a teacher, I’m a nurse.”

Felicitas Mendez died in 1988 and since then, daughter Sylvia has kept her promise. She is a tireless promoter, speaking mostly at schools about the impact the case made. 

“My mother said,’We didn’t do it just for you, we did it for all the children,” said Mendez. 

Her effort has caught the attention of Assemblyman Tri Ta, R-Westminster and Senator Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana. The bipartisan pair are sponsoring AB 1805 that would require the Mendez v. Westminster case be a part of the curriculum in California public schools. Sylvia Mendez and her sister Sandra Mendez Duran testified recently before an Assembly committee In Sacramento in support of the bill. Groups supporting the bill include the California Charter School Association, Westminster School District, the cities of Fountain Valley, Westminster and the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce among others. 

“If the children don’t learn about our case in school, they’re not going to learn about it anywhere else. I want Latinos to know about their history,” said Mendez. 

This year is the 70th anniversary in the Brown v Board of Education case that ended school segregation in the United States. Mendez v Westminster was the precursor, moving civil rights forward in the United States. It was Mexican immigrants who made it happen. Educating other about the case continues to be personal quest for Mendez. “I think my promise will be fulfilled because my mother asked me to do that,” said Mendez. 

Sylvia Mendez is hopeful AB 1805 becomes law this year. An earlier bill made it to then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger desk, but he vetoed it. The bill is in the legislative process and Mendez is being cautiously optimistic about its chances. 

“It’s been a long hard struggle. Hopefully, it’ll pass this year,” she said.


Jose Gaspar

José Gaspar is a veteran journalist and former news anchor/reporter with Telemundo, Bakersfield. Prior, he worked 28 years at KBAK-TV as a reporter. Email him at