Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority
Ed. note: Jeremy Rosenberg is off this week and turns over the Laws That Shaped L.A. column today to Sharon Sekhon.
Sekhon is the director of the Studio for Southern California History
This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Nominated by: Sharon Sekhon
Court case: Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946)
By Sharon Sekhon
While few recognize Orange County for its history of civil rights activism, all Americans are indebted to the actions of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, and four other Santa Ana families, who challenged segregation in local schools.
The 1946 court case Mendez v. Westminster School District had an immediate impact on Southern California and put a human face on the legacy of racism and potential psychological costs to American children.
Like Los Angeles, Orange County has its own media-made identity -- often depicting the place as only a bastion of like-minded conservative Anglo Americans; the home to Disneyland; or for its tremendous though manicured natural beauty. While there are kernels of truth in some stereotypes, like Los Angeles, Orange County's two-dimensional portraits are used to sell a lifestyle, product or political ideology. Mendez v. Westminster shows us that Orange County has its own activist history that is often dwarfed by its media-made identity.
Mendez v. Westminster makes us consider Orange County for its social history and to re-think American heroism and to place it where it belongs here -- among people enduring a righteous struggle for equality for all.
Mendez v. Westminster blurs the boundaries between counties and recognizes the Southwest as a region whose de facto or de juris practices reflected an embedded racism that threatened the American values of pluralism and equality. Mexicans were the agricultural labor force, both in Mexican American families living throughout the Southwest and through the Bracero Movement, of California and most of the United States.
[Read a related Law That Shaped L.A. column.]
Not only does this case reflect the changing ideas in postwar America concerning childhood and social development, but it also challenged the scientific racism that undergirded Santa Ana's segregation.
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The school district countered the Mendez case by arguing that Mexican American children were inferior to Anglo American children, carried contagious diseases, and were limited by their "language deficiency." The significance of this case for Los Angeles is that it while it had immediate reverberations in Santa Ana, its ripple effects shaped legal appeals ending segregation throughout the Southwest and ultimately for the nation.
On March 20, 2013 in an interview that I co-conducted with Gonzalo Mendez Jr. as part of the Raitt Street Chronicles, a community history project launched through the Santa Ana Public Library, Mendez explained the case to local high school students living in his former neighborhood.
His father Gonzalo Sr. had originally attended the 17th Street School as a child and wanted his children to attend it too, as it was located close their home in the Raitt/Townsend neighborhood of Santa Ana. Mendez asked his sister to enroll their children as he was busy farming and tending to the farms of his Japanese neighbors who had been interned as part of World War II. In 1943, when Mendez's fair skinned nieces with the Italian-sounding last name of Vidaurri were accepted for enrollment into the school but his own darker children were sent to Hoover Elementary School, an inferior non-white school, Mendez, Sr. was outraged.
Gonzalo Mendez, Sr. hired civil rights lawyer David Marcus, who initiated a class action lawsuit with four other families on behalf of 5,000 students against four Orange County school districts (Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena, now Eastern Orange) seeking an injunction that would order the schools to integrate. Amicus briefs in favor of desegregation were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Citizens League. Once Mendez successfully passed in the U.S. District Court of Southern California, other schools throughout the Southwest were forced to desegregate.
During the trial itself, Mendez's attorney David Marcus had Mexican American children testify on how it felt to be rejected by the "white" 17th Street School and assigned to an inferior one, including nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez, who would later receive the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama for her testimony.*
The children involved in the suit testified to the signs comparing Mexicans to dogs in Santa Ana and the "loathsome" quality of the Hoover Elementary School. Genevieve Barrios Southgate, a daughter of one of the other plaintiffs, recalled in a 1989 interview with Maria Newman of the Los Angeles Times that white parents would never tolerate the Hoover School:
It was next to a dairy and a cow pasture. It was OK for the Mexican kids to go there, even though there was a lot of illness. It was muddy; it was messy. Kids would have to shoo away the flies during their lunchtime.
Other students recalled that pride in their culture was not taught in schools but actively instilled by their parents who were farmers and small business owners. Isabel Ruiz, who grew up in Santa Ana, recalled her father taught her self-esteem and pride in her ancestry and remembers not learning anything of the sort in school.
Marcus did not limit the testimony to children and employed specialists who could explain the negative consequences of school segregation on the individual and on society. According to education scholar Frederick P. Aguirre:
Marcus retained as an expert witness Dr. Ralph Deals, head of UCLA's Anthropology Department, who testified that separating Mexican American children from White children would stamp the Mexican American children with a badge of inferiority and the White children with a badge of superiority and that such practice would lead to unproductive Mexican American citizens. He also testified that Nazi Germany had recently labeled such people as Jews and Gypsies but that America should not follow such attitudes and practices.
According to Aguirre, school district superintendents argued that Mexican Americans were inferior to their Anglo counterparts. District staff admitted transfers sending children to specific schools were based on their last names or their complexion.
The story of Mendez's case is full of details that are sometimes lost in re-counting its legacy as the blueprint for the federal case Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.
First, while Gonzalo Mendez, Sr. was Mexican American, his wife Felicitas was from Puerto Rico. Both of them were American citizens as were their children, who all spoke English fluently.
Second, under then California law, Mexican Americans and Latinos were perceived as white depending upon local context and their phenotypes; some passed as "White," while siblings of darker complexion were classified as "Mexican."
Within one generation, Mexican American students were denied access to the neighborhood school they once attended; Mendez, Sr. had attended the 17th Street School and wanted his children to attend it as well.
A pivotal part of the case is that Mendez v. Westminster did not directly take up the issue of the 1896 "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the legal basis for national segregation. According to legal historian Philippa Strum, Mendez's lawyer David Marcus brilliantly did not claim racial discrimination because Mexicans were legally considered white. Instead, he argued discrimination based on ancestry and supposed "language deficiency" that denied their children their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
Marcus showed that segregated schools created a sense of social inequality and psychological antagonisms between groups where there should be none. He successfully persuaded the federal district judge Paul McCormick, who concluded on February 18, 1946:
The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.
Fortunately, over the last dozen years, there has been a flowering of research conducted on the case, and Gonzalo and Felicitas' children have served as gracious ambassadors of this history. While the case immediately allowed for the Mendez children to attend the 17th Street School, Gonzalo Mendez Jr. gave up his childhood dreams of becoming a pilot when he realized that Mexican Americans were never considered for pilot positions. He became a carpenter and married the girl next door.
Mendez Jr. eventually moved from the Santa Ana neighborhood where he grew up as it grew more violent in the 1960s. His was the first non-white family on his block in Tustin, a city adjacent to Santa Ana. In 2003, PBS produced the documentary "Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children/Para Todos los Niños." In 2007 the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp to honor the case. In 2011 Sylvia Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her role in the case.
Frederick P. Aguirre. "Mendez V. Westminster School District: How It Affected Brown V. Board of Education." Journal of Hispanic Eduction. 2005; 4; 321.
Maria Blanco. "The Lasting Impact of Mendez V. Westminster in the Struggle for Desegregation." IPC Perspectives. March 2010.
Gonzalo Mendez Jr. "Interview as part of the Raitt Street Chronicles" conducted on March 20, 2013.
National Park Service. "American Latino Heritage-- Los Angeles, US Court House and Post Office."
Maria Newman. "'A Person Gets Tired of Being Pushed Around.'" Los Angeles Times. 5/21/1989. AJ21.
Nannette Regua. http://www.mendezwestminstercase.blogspot.com/ 2007
Philippa Strum. Mendez V. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican American Rights. University Press of Kansas. April 2010.
Raitt Street Chronicles - http://raittstreetchronicles.com/
Top Photo: Gonzalo Mendez Jr in March 2013. Photo by Sharon Sekhon
Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped LA or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy