Mendez v. Westminster

Landmark Latino history finally to be told on PBS

By Sandra Robbie
Published on LatinoLA: September 16, 2002

Mendez v. Westminster

It's not a Hollywood movie; it's real Orange County. And no, it's not made on a Ken Burn's budget. What we've tried to do is simply and respectfully preserve an untold history because one of the most important stories in American Civil Rights happened right here in Orange County.

And nobody knows.

In 1944, Orange County schools were segregated. There were schools for whites and schools for Mexicans. Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old when she and her brothers walked with their aunt Sally Vidaurri and cousins to enroll at the 17th Street School in Westminster. School officials told the aunt they would enroll the Vidaurri children, who had light skin and eyes, but turned away Sylvia and her brothers because they had dark-skin and a Mexican last name.

Mrs. Vidaurri enrolled none of the children that day. Instead, she stormed home and told her brother Gonzalo Mendez what had happened. Gonzalo and his wife Felicitas did not want to fight, but they had no choice. So they led a community battle that changed California forever and set important legal precedent for ending segregation in the United States.

Seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, Mendez v. Westminster ended segregation in Orange County and throughout California. The NAACP, ACLU, American Jewish Congress, and Japanese American Citizens League all contributed amicus briefs to the appeal that was decided in San Francisco in 1947.

Two important players in the historic chain of events include NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall and California Governor Earl Warren. Marshall went on to argue and win the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and eventually became the first black Supreme Court Justice. Earl Warren went on to become the Chief Justice who wrote the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Producer Sandra Robbie says, "So many of us believe that the fight for Civil Rights is a black and white battle that was fought and won solely in the American South. Mendez v. Westminster is the story of people of many colors fighting for American equality right here in Orange County. Most of Orange County, much less the United States, has no idea of the important contribution that was made here. In fact, most of the people I've spoken with, including teachers and lawyers, have no idea segregation ever existed in California. "

In 2004, America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legalized segregation in the U.S. Hand-in-hand with that celebration, Sandra Robbie's goal is for every student in California and the U.S. to understand the important role Orange County played in American Civil Rights history. She says, "Shoulder-to-shoulder, people fought together -- that is how the Mendez case was won. Hand-in-hand, people working together, that is how news of this upcoming program will spread in our communities."

The Real Orange documentary "Mendez v. Westminster: For All the Children, Para Todos los Ni?os" is set to debut on KOCE in Orange County on Tuesday, September 24, 2002 at 7:30 p.m. as part of their Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. Teachers especially are encouraged to tell their students and set their VCRs for the program.

Image: Detail from "Education is a Basic Human Right," Acrylic on canvas mural by Homegirl Productions: Alma Lopez & Noni Olabisi ? 1998. This project was commissioned by the City of Los Angeles? Cultural Affairs Department?s Percent for Art. Located at Angeles Mesa Branch Public Library is located at 2700 W. 52ND Street, Los Angeles. http://home.earthlink.net/~almalopez/murals/edu/education.html

About Sandra Robbie:
Sandra Robbie, producer of Mendez v. Westminster, grew up in Westminster and only learned about this case five years ago. As it turns out, her parents home is built on what was once the Mendez farm. Mendezvwest@aol.com.

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