Westminster district honors Mendez family and the landmark civil rights case that bears their name

educators and activists stand in front of new dedication sign for school districtIn 1943, Sylvia Mendez and her two brothers were turned away from Westminster’s 17th Street School, known then as “the white school,” based on their heritage and skin color.

What followed was a lengthy court battle, leading to the desegregation of California’s public schools in 1947 and setting the stage for the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision.

More than 70 years later, the Westminster School District has paid tribute to this groundbreaking civil rights case and the local parents who fought to secure educational equality for future generations, officially dedicating its central office in honor of the Mendez family.

Surrounded by district officials, city leaders, local dignitaries and community members, Sylvia Mendez was the guest of honor for Wednesday’s unveiling of new signage for the administrative headquarters at 14121 Cedarwood Street. Out front, the marquee now reads, “Westminster School District, In Honor of La Familia Mendez.”

silvia mendez poses for photo with children and relatives
Sylvia Mendez poses for photos next to the Westminster School District marquee that now bears her family’s name. (Photos by Fermin Leal)

“This is such an honor for my father, Gonzalo, and mother, Felicitas Mendez,” said Sylvia Mendez, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“My father grew up here in Westminster, and we fought the case and won it,” she said. “And after it was won, nobody said, ‘Gracias, Gonzalo.’ But look at the wonderful ‘gracias’ we are getting today from this wonderful school district.”

The district marquee isn’t the only structure commemorating the Mendez family. District officials announced that the school board chambers is now the Mendez Board Room, and the gym at Westminster’s Johnson Middle School has been formally branded as the Sylvia Mendez Gymnasium.

“Since the Mendez v. Westminster case, I feel so privileged to be standing here before you to say that the Westminster School District has come such a long way and we are proud to be a district that provides equity for all students,” Superintendent Dr. Cyndi Paik told the crowd of about 200. “We embrace diversity, multiculturalism and multilingualism, which promotes tolerance and inclusivity.”

In a visual illustration of Paik’s words, students from the dual-immersion programs at Willmore and DeMille elementary schools later performed traditional Mexican and Vietnamese dances as Mendez and members of her extended family looked on.

Special recognitions were also presented by California State Senator Tom Umberg, Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do and others.

“Sylvia Mendez, thanks to you my son is in this school district,” Westminster school board President Khanh Nguyen said. “He’s been here for five years, and he loves it. It’s a great school district, and it’s all because of you.”

Not far from this site, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez had sought to enroll their three children — Sylvia and brothers Geronimo and Gonzalo — in 17th Street School rather than the less desirable Hoover Elementary campus for students of Mexican heritage.

student performers dance on a stageRebuffed by district officials, the couple hired a local attorney and later teamed up with four other Orange County families to take legal action. Their suit, Mendez, et al v. Westminster, claimed that 5,000 children throughout the county were similarly impacted by unconstitutional segregation policies.

The five families won a groundbreaking victory in the U.S. District Court in 1946, but the case was appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court upheld the ruling on April 14, 1947. Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, declaring that segregated schools across the country were in violation of the Constitution.

Sylvia Mendez is now 83, and she continues to speak with clarity and wit about her family’s courageous stance, taken at a time when the outcome was far from certain.

“It was my mother, Felicitas Mendez, who said, ‘Sylvia, somebody has to go around the country and tell this story about the Mendez family,'” she said. “I said, ‘Mom, I can’t do it.’ She said, ‘Somebody has to.'”

While her visibility serves a quiet reminder that racial segregation was an accepted policy within the span of just one lifetime, Sylvia has also become a symbol of how much progress can be made within a generation, inspiring books, podcasts and local tributes. From that lens, Mendez the civil rights activist has come to embody resilience, hope, strength and the unwavering pursuit of equity and access for all students.

“My father is a few blocks away from here at (the) Westminster cemetery,” she told the crowd on Wednesday. “I know that he’s so proud of what’s going on, that the school district is going to have his last name, Mendez.”

This won’t be the last time the case is celebrated and memorialized locally. OCDE has teamed up with the city of Westminster to create content and curriculum for a local trail and monument that will honor the history and legacy of the Mendez’ legal battle. The Mendez Freedom Trail and Tribute Monument is expected to be completed next year.

And here’s a brief look at the unveiling of the Westminster School District Office’s new sign.