Sylvia Mendez knows a thing or two about breaking barriers. But, as she noted Wednesday, this may have been her first time cutting a ceremonial ribbon.
Not far from where she and her brothers were denied enrollment at a school because of their Mexican heritage, setting in motion a landmark desegregation case with national reverberations, the civil rights icon visited Westminster High School to help dedicate a brand new learning pavilion named in her honor.
“I am very aware how much work went into putting this together,” Mendez said. “Muchísimas gracias. I am so grateful, and so thank you. Thank you very much.”
Huntington Beach Union High School District officials formally launched the Sylvia Mendez Learning Pavilion during an afternoon celebration that featured student Folklorico dancers, steel drum music, a percussive performance by the school’s Vietnamese American Culture Club, empanadas, the debut of a massive outside mural, and a tour of the new facility, which more than earned the approval of its namesake.
“It is beautiful to see all these different cultures coming together to celebrate today,” said Mendez, who was introduced by her cousin, HBUHSD Career Technical Education Facilitator Marilyn Mendez Cunneen.
Access and opportunity
The Sylvia Mendez Learning Pavilion has emerged from the school’s library, occupying the same round building on the northeast side of the campus at Goldenwest Street and Westminster Boulevard. Most of the books will still be there, but the space has been completely reimagined as a student-friendly lounge that wouldn’t seem out of place on a college campus, with comfortable seating, small learning pods, Wi-Fi access and a computer lab.
Just like a college study center, the pavilion will offer extended hours. Principal Amy Sabol said tutors and support staff will be on site into the evenings, ensuring students and families have a safe place to learn and study.
As such, the project embodies the access and opportunity that Sylvia Mendez’s family fought to secure for all students. And as an added bonus, one of its interior walls is inscribed with a timeline of the historic case of Mendez v. Westminster, which led to the desegregation of local schools years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
“As we developed the concept for the pavilion, immediately we realized there is no better name to reflect our vision than Sylvia Mendez,” Sabol said.
“This pavilion symbolizes the inspiring story of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equality,” added HBUHSD school board president Dr. Michael Simons. “Knowing and honoring this history makes the space even more meaningful.”
The story in an image
On an outside wall, a towering mural created by artist Chuck Adame — with the help of fellow artists Israel “Ezra” Cervantes and Jose Joaquin — captures both the vision of the pavilion and the significance of Mendez v. Westminster.
The dignified profile of Sylvia Mendez occupies the top left corner of the mural, along with the year her case was resolved. Also depicted are her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, the Presidential Medal of Freedom she was awarded in 2011, a blindfolded Lady Justice, books with the term “equality” written on their spines in multiple languages, and the Japanese kanji character for “harmony.” The latter symbolizes the family’s bond with members of the Munemitsu family who leased their farmland to the Mendezes after being ordered to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Like so many others, Adame said he wasn’t initially aware of Mendez v. Westminster but was “blown away” after diving into the research.
“I was just so amazed, I could not stop talking about it,” he said. “I was telling everyone I knew about this. So to say that I was extremely honored to be a part of it is an understatement.”
A groundbreaking victory
The story begins in 1943, also in Westminster. That’s where Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez tried to enroll Sylvia and her brothers, Geronimo and Gonzalo, at 17th Street School, known as “the white school.”
But district officials directed the family to Hoover Elementary, a campus for Mexican American children. Sylvia Mendez, just 8 years old at the time, would later describe Hoover as “a terrible little shack” with dirt for a playground.
Her parents hired a local attorney, who later consolidated the case with four other Orange County families who were willing to take legal action. Mendez, et al v. Westminster claimed that 5,000 children throughout the county were unjustly harmed by unconstitutional segregation policies.
The families won a groundbreaking victory in the U.S. District Court in 1946 that was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals the following year. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, which asserted that all laws promoting school segregation were unconstitutional.
In honor of La Familia Mendez
Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964, and Felicitas Mendez died in 1998. In accordance with her mother’s wishes, Sylvia Mendez has spent much of her post-retirement life speaking publicly about the case and talking to students about the importance of education.
She’s now 85, and there is little doubt that her efforts to raise awareness have been successful, expanding the case’s profile across the country.
The Santa Ana Unified School District opened Gonzalo Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in 2000. More recently, the Westminster School District rededicating its central office with a marquee that reads, “Westminster School District, In Honor of La Familia Mendez.” And last year, Felicitas Mendez became the subject of a Google Doodle.
Wednesday’s guests included Huntington Beach Union High School District trustees, Superintendent Clint Harwick, OCDE Chief Academic Officer Jeff Hittenberger and a number of Westminster High students and staff members whose summer vacations were well underway.
Many were eager to get a photo and share words of gratitude with Sylvia Mendez, who reflected on the hard-fought legal battle that ultimately united communities and set generations of students on paths to brighter futures.
“In Mendez v. Westminster there was no violence, I have to tell you,” she said. “People came together to right a wrong. It took my parents and the other families a lot of courage. This court case is all about the struggle for equal education and for basic human rights.”