When she was in college, Sandra Mendez discovered something about her past that changed the way she looked at her parents forever. An American of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent, Sandra grew up unaware that her brave immigrant parents had been responsible for paving the path to racial desegregation in schools.
65 years ago, this month, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez joined four other families to fight a lawsuit against Orange County, California because their Mexican-American children were not allowed to attend white schools. They won the case, Mendez vs. Westminster, which then set the stage for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. Although Sandra had not been born at the time, her elder sister Sylvia remembers it well:
I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice…And I’d be there sitting very quietly, not really understanding what was going on….
It was only later that she began to understand that she would have to continue fighting even after her parents had won the case. In a conversation between Sylvia and Sandra which was recorded as a part of the StoryCorps Historias project, Sylvia describes the vivid memory of having a white boy at school tell her that she did not belong there and that “they shouldn’t have Mexicans here.” When she cried to her mother that she didn’t want to be at that school her mother would have none of it. “Don’t you realize that this is what we fought for? Of course you’re going to stay in that school and prove that you’re just as good as he is.”
The Mendez’s never really spoke about their monumental victory to anyone, so much that Sandra herself didn’t hear about it till she was in college. She came across her father’s name in a coursebook, and shocked at the coincidence, asked her mother about it. Her mother nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah, that was us. We did that”. Her reason for not mentioning it before – whenever they spoke about it they could be accused of bragging.
The Mendez’s story is like so many other moments in history that have been silenced or forgotten over the years, denying people a sense of shared heritage and community history. One of the largest oral history projects of the time, StoryCorps has launched the StoryCorps Historias, an initiative to record the diverse experiences of Latinos in the United States, capturing the stories and memories for generations to come.
While education has come a long way from 1945 when the Mendez’s won their case, and 1954 when racial segregation in schools came to an end, it is important to note that even today we face a number of problems with immigration education. Those opposed to immigration use the argument that bilingual educational programs hamper a child’s academic development, and that by allowing school children to retain their foreign language in school, the system is posing a threat to the future of English in the country. The controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which promotes English-only instruction, is based on this skepticism at bilingual learning and has resulted in the nation’s 5 million immigrant children being left behind.
In her new book, “True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children”, Professor Rosemary Salomone counters these myths about bilingual education. She argues that in fact, bilingualism increases mental dexterity, creative thinking and problem solving. And as in the case of Europe, a push towards multilingualism would benefit the nation in the long run, politically, economically and socially. Isn’t it time that our lawmakers started embracing the strength of our diversity rather than burying their heads in the sand?
Photo courtesy of npr.org