by Scott Doyle,
From LA Review of Books
IN 1943, A DECADE BEFORE Brown v. Board of Education, an Orange County farmer named Gonzalo Mendez asked his sister to take his three children along with hers and enroll them at the local elementary school. It didn’t seem like a big deal; Gonzalo himself had briefly attended that very school. Yet while his sister’s children — light-skinned, with a French last name — were admitted, his darker-skinned children were not. Gonzalo and his wife Felicitas challenged the decision, eventually filing a class-action lawsuit that would reach the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and help pave the way for the more famous case overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Yet the case remains little known outside of legal circles, and isn’t even an official part of California’s K-12 school curriculum. Now, with the help of the nonprofit organization 826LA, Ben De Leon’s students at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights have written a book that examines the legacy of the case, and the related social and cultural issues they continue to confront in a state where Latino students are more segregated than in any other.
Mexican immigration to the United States took off in the second decade of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought about political and social turmoil south of the border, and growing restrictions against Japanese immigration created wartime labor shortages in America. By the mid-1920s, three-fourths of California farmworkers were of Mexican origin. In 1927, 17 percent of the Orange County school population was Mexican-American; by 1934, the percentage had climbed to 25 percent. Increasingly, those children attended elementary schools designated strictly for “Mexicans.” Segregation at the high school level wasn’t necessary in most places, as very few Mexican-Americans made it past the 8th grade.
Gonzalo Mendez’s family emigrated from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1919 and settled in Westminster, California. Gonzalo attended elementary school through the fifth grade, then dropped out to help support his family by working in the citrus groves. He was hardworking and enterprising. He married Felicitas in 1935 and, three years later, the young couple opened a café in Santa Ana. They prospered, buying a house and two other properties. But Gonzalo had always wanted to run his own farm. In 1943 the opportunity opened up to lease a 40-acre asparagus farm in Westminster, and he jumped on it and moved his family back to his old town.
So when, that fall, the local elementary school refused to enroll his children, they were taking on a formidable adversary: an American citizen who spoke good English, as did his children; who was deeply invested in his new country; and who had resources.
Gonzalo’s sister Soledad Vidaurri refused to enroll her own children that day. When Gonzalo heard the news, he was determined to fight, and patiently went about challenging the decision: meeting with the principal the following day, and the school board the day after that. He eventually hired David Marcus to represent him. Marcus, a civil rights attorney whose second wife was a Mexican immigrant, had recently won a case involving a segregated public swimming pool in San Bernardino.
The initial objective was simply to sue the Westminster school system. But Marcus had his sights set higher: he wanted to challenge the very notion of “separate but equal.” While local families were hesitant to join the challenge, Marcus wanted to prove a county-wide intent to segregate and, with the help of two local activists, he was eventually able to recruit four additional families for a class-action lawsuit filed in March of 1945 on behalf of the petitioners and “some 5,000 other persons of Mexican and Latin descent” from the four school districts involved.
The trial took place that July. In addition to paying Marcus’s legal fees, Gonzalo and Felicitas had formed a parents association that was active throughout the trial, and they reimbursed members for time lost in the fields.
In February of 1946, Judge Paul J.McCormick handed down his decision, a resounding victory for the plaintiffs. The language of his finding struck a direct blow to separate-but-equal: “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”
Almost immediately, the county superintendent of schools filed a series of objections, and in December the case was moved to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Even before the appeals court ruled, a bill was introduced into the state legislature effectively ending segregated education in California. In April the Ninth Circuit Court upheld McCormick’s decision, albeit on narrow jurisdictional grounds that did not go to the heart of “separate but equal.” But the case garnered significant national attention, and the NAACP and ACLU, among others, filed “friend of the court” briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs.
David Marcus’s legal strategy broke new ground. In the 1930s, the NAACP had quietly begun to mount an offensive against school segregation, but had chosen to focus exclusively on the “equal” part of the separate-but-equal equation. By contrast, Marcus insisted that segregation was, intrinsically, a form of discrimination. While the resources allocated to “Mexican” schools were patently unequal to those of the white schools, Marcus chose not to press that point. Instead, he argued that the county was practicing ethnic segregation without regard to linguistic or academic ability.
Although Thurgood Marshall signed the NAACP “friend of the court” brief, it was in fact written by assistant special counsel Robert Carter, who would go on to play a key role in future desegregation cases. His brief was a broad and sweeping attack on segregation, addressing the Mendez case, but also the long history of discrimination against blacks. “I used it as a trial run forBrown,” Carter later acknowledged. Read More Here