Mijares: Public space honoring Mendez v. Westminster will bring communities together

The case of Mendez v. Westminster broke new ground not just for Orange County, but for our entire nation.

Now, more than 70 years later, the Orange County Department of Education and the City of Westminster are breaking ground on a park and monument honoring the legacy of the court case that famously led to the desegregation of California’s public schools.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares

Statues of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who successfully took legal action after their children were turned away from their neighborhood school on the basis of race, will soon be the centerpiece of a public space along Westminster Boulevard at Olive Street. The sculptures will be surrounded by other evocative pieces, including a large textbook monument and interpretive panels with additional insight on the case and its far-reaching impacts.

We’re hoping you will take a few moments to watch a pre-recorded and physically-distanced celebration marking the start of construction on this highly anticipated project. Our virtual groundbreaking ceremony, which debuted Oct. 13, can be found on the OCDE Newsroom, as well as the OCDE and Westminster Facebook pages.

As the precursor to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Mendez case is worthy of commemoration for reasons that go beyond acknowledging a historic injustice. It should be viewed as an affirmation of who we are, how far we’ve come as a society, and what we’re still capable of accomplishing. And it all started here in Orange County.

Mendez tribute monument groundbreaking graphicIn 1943, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez tried to enroll their three children — Sylvia, Geronimo and Gonzalo Jr. — in Westminster’s 17th Street School, known as “the white school.” But they were directed instead to Hoover Elementary, an inferior campus for students of Mexican heritage.

Keep in mind these students and their parents were American citizens. Their ensuing lawsuit, Mendez v. Westminster, was supported by four other families who argued that children throughout the county were unjustly discriminated against under the 14th Amendment.

A year after their victory in U.S. District Court, the ruling was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947. In 1954, the Supreme Court took up a similar case in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that policies justifying school segregation were in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Artist Ignacio Gomez has been tapped to create the statues for Westminster’s new memorial, and OCDE is developing content and curriculum for the park and four interactive stations that will be installed along a walking path on Hoover Street. Collectively referred to as the Mendez Freedom Trail and Tribute Monument project, the project is expected to be completed in 2021.

These public spaces will bring communities together to unite behind shared values and reflect on a watershed moment for this country. They will also provide an opportunity to further recognize the courageous families who made it possible. But make no mistake: In the United States, their legacy is everywhere.