Long before the historic Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation case, there was Mendez vs. Westminster (1947).
Eight years before Brown hit the courts, Latino families in Orange County successfully challenged school segregation in federal court.
This month, Westminster is unveiling a new public park dedicated to this integral case borne of Latino activism, and its role in ending segregation in public schools in Orange County and across America.
Westminster city officials formally opened the Mendez Tribute Monument Park during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 1, in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education.
The ceremony featured speeches from city officials, alongside the monument’s sculptor Ignacio Gomez and Sylvia Mendez, who as a 9-year old in the 1940s ended up at the front of a coalition of local Mexican American families that went to federal court to challenge segregation.
“This park means everything to me,” Mendez said. “People have been fighting for education for all these years, and they continue to this day to fight so we can have equal education in all the schools.”
The first statue, located in the center of the park, depicts her parents, Felicita and Gonzalo Mendez, and the second depicts two school children holding books.
A nearby statue, a large book discussing the history of Mendez v. Westminster, sits at the end of the park. The statue weighs approximately 4,000 pounds, according to city officials.
In addition to the statues and educational graphics, the park contains an augmented reality portion detailing the history and significance of Mendez v. Westminster.
Visitors can scan QR codes placed around the park to receive an interactive guide, available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The City of Westminster has provided free WiFi access at the park in order to make the guide more accessible.
The desegregation of Orange County’s public schools was the result of activism by five Latino fathers and their families: Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino and Lorenzo Ramirez.
Nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez was denied entry at a Westminster public school for “whites only” in September 1944, and was told that she would need to attend Hoover School, a segregated school for Mexican children.
Yet Hoover had inadequate facilities and was located next to electrified wire fences, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
In response, her father Gonzalo Mendez organized alongside other Mexican-American parents to challenge segregation in Orange County school districts. Mendez and the other families later joined their lawsuits and moved to sue the school district in federal court in 1945 with Mendez as the lead name on the case. A federal court would rule in favor of Mendez on April 14, 1947.
Lorenzo Ramirez stood alongside Mendez to challenge the idea of segregated “Mexican schools” in 1944, merging their case alongside other families with similar struggles. Ramirez was raised in the El Modena neighborhood in Orange, but later moved to Whittier to work as a ranch foreman with his wife, Josefina. There, his sons were enrolled in a non-segregated school. After moving back to El Modena with his family, Ramirez was told that his three sons would need to attend a segregated school.
While families like the Ramirez family often are left out of the narrative of the Mendez v. Westminster case,
The idea behind the monument to the Mendez v. Westminster case is to ensure that the activism of these local families is never forgotten.
“We are not segregated by law like we once were,” said Syliva Mendez, adding, “I want to tell students that there is nothing that can stop you,”