Inside: A list of Sylvia Mendez quotes, along with suggested books and a biography.
Most Americans are familiar with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, a ruling that declared the segregation of schools unconstitutional.
But did you know that almost 10 years earlier, a similar case was playing out in California? Mendez vs. Westminster was a case from five families, suing their district for forcing their children to attend “Mexican schools” and denying access to “whites only” schools.
At the center of this case was Sylvia Mendez, age 8. She didn’t know it at the time, but her story would change the lives of children in California and eventually the entire United States.
If you are here specifically looking for Sylvia Mendez quotes, click here to jump to that section!
Here’s an index of what’s included in the post. You can click on any link to jump straight to that section:
- Sylvia Mendez Biography
- Links and Printables to Learn More
- Sylvia Mendez Books
- YouTube Videos
- Quotes from Sylvia Mendez
Sylvia Mendez Biography
Fast Facts about Sylvia Mendez
Birth: June 7, 1936
Birthplace: Santa Ana, California
Education: Orange Coast Community College, California State University at Los Angeles (B.S.)
Career: Teacher, Activist
Famous For: Being part of the landmark Mendez vs. Westminster Case at age 8, paving the way for desegregation in schools. Recipient in 2011 of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Sylvia Mendez was born June 7, 1936 in Santa Ana California, to Mexican and Puerto Rican parents.
Mendez’s family moved to Westminster, California, a community in which schools were segregated. Her lighter- skinned cousins were admitted to the better-funded “English” school, but when Mendez’s parents went to enroll Sylvia and her siblings, they were denied admission. Mendez’s aunt was outraged and convinced Gonzalo Mendez (Sylvia’s father) to sue after their appeals to the school were again denied.
“The bare-bones facilities offered to students like Mendez lacked basic supplies and sufficient teachers. Many only provided vocational classes or did not offer a full 12 years of instruction. Children were arbitrarily forced to attend based on factors like their complexion and last name.” (History.com)
Gonzalo Mendez joined with four other families and filed their lawsuit together. They alleged the Spanish-speaking schools were subpar and all children should have access to the same schools.
The Mendez family won their case, after almost a year. Due to the court’s decision, California banned separate schools for Spanish-speaking children, leading the way to desegregation across the entire state.
Interestingly, the Governor of California at the time, Earl Warren, actually went on to be the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice. He was on the Supreme Court during the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and declared segregation across all states illegal.
Sadly, Mendez’s father died before he saw the full impact of his efforts. Sylvia’s mother convinced her to raise awareness of their family’s story, and after working several decades as a nurse, she now dedicates her time to speaking around the country to share her story and history. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- Postal Stamp Commemorating Mendez vs. Westminster
Interesting Facts about Sylvia Mendez for Kids
Like Ruby Bridges, Sylvia Mendez changed the lives of thousands of children after her. They are heroes who didn’t necessarily choose to be put in that position.
Mendez later shared when she sat in the courtroom those many times, she hadn’t exactly known what was happening.
She recounted, “My mother says, ‘Sylvia, don’t you realize what we’re fighting for?”, ‘Yes, so we can get to that beautiful school in Westminster.’ She said, ‘No Sylvia, that’s not we’re fighting, we’re fighting because under God we’re all equal, you belong at that school just like everybody else belongs to that school, that’s what we’re fighting for.”
When Sylvia did begin attending the regular school, she endured bullying and poor treatment from her peers and it was not an easy experience for her. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to honor her legacy.
Printables and links to learn more
- Free printable Sylvia Mendez coloring page.
- Online Activities to go with the book Separate is Never Equal
- Printables and lesson plan for the books Echo and Separate is Never Equal.
Middle – High School Resources:
- “Why Mendez Still Matters” Learning for Justice Toolkit (for middle and high school, with printables and lesson ideas).
- Mendez. vs. Westminster Court Case and Questions
You also might be interested in my sets of biography slides and project templates for learning about Latinx and Spanish-Speaking leaders, plus a free guessing game.
Syvlia Mendez Books
These links are affiliate links.
Videos About Sylvia Mendez
An intro to Sylvia Mendez, in her own words and featuring photos from her story and childhood (2min 20s).
An overview of the Mendez vs. Westminster case (4min 23s) in a school-friendly voice. See the video on YouTube here.
A 1-minute, concise overview of the Mendez vs. Westminster case:
A slightly more in-depth look at the Sylvia Mendez story:
An interview with Sylvia Mendez with Univision (6min 59s):
6 Sylvia Mendez Quotes
1. “I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice (giggles) and we’d be there sitting very quietly, not really understanding what was going on. And it wasn’t ‘til I was ten years old that I really discovered what they were fighting.”
– Sylvia Mendez, StoryCorps
2. “We weren’t being taught to be smart. We were being taught how to be maids and how to crochet and how to quilt.”
– Sylvia Mendez
3. My mother says, “Sylvia, don’t you realize what we’re fighting for?”, “Yes, so we can get to that beautiful school in Westminster.” She said, “No Sylvia, that’s not we’re fighting, we’re fighting because under God we’re all equal, you belong at that school just like everybody else belongs to that school, that’s what we’re fighting for”.
– Sylvia Mendez, Orange County Dept. of Education
4. “It’s about everybody coming together. If you start fighting for justice, people of all ethnicities will come together.”
– Sylvia Mendez
5. “We are all individuals; we are all human beings; we are all connected together; and we all have the same rights, the same freedom.”
– Sylvia Mendez
6. “No matter your race or background, anything is possible.”
– Sylvia Mendez
I hope these ideas and resources were helpful to you! If you have more ideas for resources or lessons, let me know in the comments below!
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