Elementary students present donation to civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez for local monument

Kids from Carrillo Elementary School in the Garden Grove Unified School District recently gave a gift of gratitude to civil rights icon Sylvia Mendez.

At a school assembly, students presented the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient with a check for more than $1,000 to help build a monument that will honor her family’s fight for school desegregation in Orange County.

Mendez, 83, talked to students about growing up in Westminster and being one of the first Mexican-American students to attend a non-segregated school during her visit to the Westminster campus on Feb. 12. She also emphasized the importance of perseverance and accepting those who are different.

Students and adults posing with check.

Sylvia Mendez, center, accepts a donation of more than $1,000 from Carrillo Elementary students to help build a monument honoring the landmark civil rights case that desegregated Orange County’s schools. Westminster City Councilman Sergio Contreras, Garden Grove school board president Walter Muneton and fellow trustee Lan Nguyen were also in attendance.

Those will be among the themes emphasized in the Mendez Freedom Trail and Tribute Monument, which will start to take shape this year.

OCDE has partnered with the city of Westminster to create content and curriculum for four interactive stations that will span a walking path along Hoover Street. Not far away, a monument created by artist Ignacio Gomez will occupy a pocket park off Westminster Boulevard at Olive Street.

Statues will depict Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who in 1943 sought to enroll Sylvia and brothers Geronimo and Gonzalo at Westminster’s 17th Street School, then known as “the white school.” Their children were turned away and told to go to Hoover Elementary, a campus for students of Mexican heritage.

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez hired an attorney and teamed up with four other Orange County families to pursue legal action, filing Mendez, et al v. Westminster on behalf of 5,000 children who were similarly denied access to closer, higher quality schools.

In 1946, the families won a groundbreaking victory in the U.S. District Court, and the ruling was upheld the following year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its landmark 1954 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court similarly declared that segregated schools in the United States were unconstitutional.

“We are thankful for people like Mrs. Mendez, who continue to fight for equality for our children,” said GGUSD Board of Education President Walter Muneton. “Our students’ contributions to the Mendez Freedom Trail and Monument is special because it will ensure her family legacy continues to educate students for generations to come about one of the biggest victories for equality in education.”

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez are gone, but Sylvia Mendez continues to tell her family’s story at the request of her late mother. In October, she spoke at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Westminster School District, which changed its marquee to read, “Westminster School District, In Honor of La Familia Mendez.”