On a crisp December morning, the City of Westminster and the Orange County Department of Education celebrated the opening of a new park honoring the historic case of Mendez v. Westminster, which put an end to forced segregation in California’s public schools while laying the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decision.
City officials, local dignitaries, educators, students and community members turned out in force for Mendez Tribute Monument Park’s dedication ceremony, marking the completion of a five-year collaborative effort. But a few days before its official opening, I had an opportunity to preview the park with Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights icon whose story is central to the case.
Nearly 80 years earlier, in 1943, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez sought to enroll Sylvia and her two brothers, Geronimo and Gonzalo, Jr., at 17th Street School, known then as “the white school.” Despite being American citizens who spoke English — the family lived and worked on a Westminster farm — they were turned away and directed instead to Hoover Elementary, a campus designated for Mexican American children.
Sylvia Mendez was just 8 years old at the time. She would later describe Hoover as “a terrible little shack” with dirt for a playground.
The Mendez family ultimately hired an attorney and teamed up with four other Orange County families who had similarly been denied access to their neighborhood schools. Their case, Mendez, et al v. Westminster et al, argued that 5,000 children throughout the county were unjustly harmed by unconstitutional segregation policies.
In 1946, U.S. District Court Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the five families, and his decision was later upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case ended on April 14, 1947 — one day before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Seven years later, the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in its sweeping Brown v. Board decision.
Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964 at age 51, and his wife Felicitas passed in 1998 — but not before urging her daughter to share the family’s story far and wide.
On Monday, Nov. 28, bronze statues of Gonzalo and Felicitas were unveiled for the first time in the new quarter-acre park, which also features a large textbook monument and statues of two students, symbolizing the children impacted by the court’s decision. Surrounding these displays are drought-resistant plants, a dry creek bed and interactive stations with content from OCDE’s staff of professional educators, who also developed lesson plans and activities for teachers.
As the towering likenesses of her parents were revealed, Sylvia Mendez and her siblings stood front and center. Other invited guests took photos and applauded.
“I’m just so happy,” Sylvia said. “I know my mother and family are looking at us from heaven, and they are so happy. Thank you for honoring them.”
In this season of gratitude, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Mendezes, along with the Estrada, Guzman, Palomino and Ramirez families, all of whom fought for access and equality on behalf of generations of students they would never meet. As Felicitas Mendez said, they were taking action not just for their own children, but para todos los niños — for all children.
The Mendez case is worth celebrating because it broke new ground not just for Orange County but for our entire nation, broadening and strengthening the principles on which this country was founded.
Now and forever, Mendez Tribute Monument Park will serve as a space to gather behind shared values, to reflect on those principles, to revisit a watershed moment in our history and to learn more about the everyday Americans who made it possible.
For more information on Mendez Tribute Monument Park, along with lesson plans and activities, visit www.mendezpark.org.