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Sylvia Mendez is a civil rights activist from the United States of Mexican and Puerto Rican parents. The Mendez family’s attempt to enroll Sylvia and her siblings at a “white-only” school led to the Californian desegregation case, Mendez v. Westminster. Sylvia Mendez is not related to the actor, Anthony Mendez, on The CW’s hit show "Jane, The Virgin."

Youth and Family

Sylvia Mendez was born in Santa Ana, California in 1936 to immigrant parents. Her father, Gonzalo Mendez, was a native of Mexico and her mother, Felicita Gómez Mendez, came from Puerto Rico. [1] Felicita Gómez moved to Arizona with her family and they participated in protests against cotton farmers paying Puerto Rican immigrants unfair wages during her youth. She attempted to join the American Federation of Labor with her family, but they were denied entry due to their involvement with the radical International Workers of the World union.

Gómez moved to California with her family and then met and married Gonzalo Mendez in 1935. The couple started a successful cantina in a Santa Ana Mexican neighborhood.[2] A few years after Sylvia’s birth, the Mendez family moved to Westminster, California. They used the profits to rent farmland from a Japanese-American family sentenced to a World War II internment camp.[3]

California’s Segregated School

Hispanic immigrants faced severe discrimination during in the 1940s and the schools in Orange County, the district containing Westminster, were all segregated. Westminster only had two schools with one for whites, 17th Street Elementary, and one for Hispanics, Hoover Elementary. The Mendez family first enrolled their three children, Sylvia, Gonzalo, Jr., and Jerome, at Hoover Elementary school. The tiny wooden building in the center of the city’s Mexican area only had two rooms and was more shack than school. Especially when comparing it to the 17th Street Elementary School, only a mile away, with its solid brick building shaded by trees.[4]

When the California school denied enrollment for Sylvia Mendez and her brothers, Felicita Gómez’s history of fighting injustice encouraged the family to take action.

In 1943, the Mendez family wanted to send their children to 17th Street Elementary School once the difference in educational quality became clear. Gonzalo Mendez’s sister, Sally Vidaurri, took Sylvia, her brothers, and her cousins to the school for enrollment. The administration informed Vidaurri that her children, who had light eyes and light skin, could attend the school, but the Mendez children could not due to their darker skin tone and Mexican surname. Vidaurri stormed out of the office without enrolling any of the children. She returned to her brother’s house and told him what happened.[5]

Mendez v. Westminster

The Mendez family decided to fight the discrimination. Gonzalo set out to organize other members of the Mexican community in Westminster to bring a case against the city. The Menendez family used the money from their successful farm to hire a civil rights attorney from Los Angeles, David Marcus. The family wanted to just sue the school district of Westminster at first, but the Jewish-American lawyer encouraged them to tackle the pressing issue on a greater scale.

On March 2, 1945, Marcus filed the case Mendez v. Westminster against four of the school districts in Orange County, including Santa Ana, Garden Grove, El Modena (known as Eastern Orange today), as well as Westminster. The Mendez family served as a plaintiff along with four other Mexican-American families represented by Lorenzo Ramirez, Thomas Estrada, Frank Palomino, and William Guzman. The five families stood in for the 5,000 other children in the districts forced to attend segregated schools.

The case received an outpouring of support from organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the National Lawyers Guild, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[6] The trial lasted two weeks and Marcus used an uncommon argument to support the case. He suggested that segregated schools negatively affected the Mexican-American children’s sense of self. The evidence supported by social science claimed this made the children feel inferior and undermined their ability to become productive members of society.[7]

Case Results and Consequences

The presiding judge, Paul J. McCormick, ruled on March 18, 1946, that the “segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them where none exists.” On April 14, 1947, the California 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge McCormick’s ruling by denying the school districts’ appeal.[8] Governor of California, Earl Warren, signed a bill into law only two months later making California the first to end segregation in all public schools.[9]

Despite the groundbreaking nature of ''Mendez v. Westminster'', many schoolbooks do not contain any reference to the case, so Sylvia Mendez tours the United States to educate about its significance.

Mendez v. Westminster inspired another famous case dealing with segregation, Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall wrote the supportive court brief from the NAACP during the Mendez case. When the court ruled against segregation, Marshall used Judge McCormick’s decision when arguing Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court. Governor Warren, who was now Justice Warren, wrote the opinion for the second case in 1954 to finish what he began after desegregating schools in California.[10]

Later Life and Career

Sylvia Mendez wanted to be a telephone operator after graduating high school, but her mother pushed her to do greater things.[11] She became a nurse and eventually served as the Los Angeles University of Southern California Medical Center’s Assistant Nursing Director for the Pediatric Pavilion.[12] She retired in 1990 and decided to spend the rest of her life educating the public about Mendez v. Westminster since it has been largely ignored after the success of Brown v.s Board of Education.

Mendez succeeded in getting two schools named after her parents Los Angeles and Santa Ana. Sandra Robbie released a film in 2003 documenting the landmark case called “For All the Children.” President Barack Obama bestowed the Congressional Medal Freedom to Sylvia Mendez in February 2011 for her civil rights activism throughout her life.[13] The U.S. Postal Service created a stamp in 2007 to commemorate the Mendez v. Westminster case.[14] She is not related to television actor Anthony Mendez, star of The CW’s Jane, the Virgin.[15]



 The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. (2011). Background - Mendez v. Westminster re-enactment. United States Courts.[4]

Morales, E. (2012, February 3). The school desegregation case you don’t know. CNN.[5]

Santiago, T. Sylvia Mendez. El Boricua: A Bilingual, Cultural Publication for Puerto Ricans.[6]

Zonkel, P. Righting a Wrong. Mendez vs. Westminster.[7]


  1. Santiago, n.d.
  2. Morales, 2012
  3. Santiago, n.d.
  4. Leal, F. (2007, March 21). Desegregation Landmark has O.C. Ties.[1]
  5. Robble, S. (2002, September 16). Mendez v. Westminster. ¡LatinoLA![2]
  6. Zonkel, n.d.
  7. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011
  8. Zonkel, n.d.
  9. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011
  10. Zonkel, n.d.
  11. Morales, 2012
  12. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011
  13. Morales, 2012
  14. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011
  15. IMDB (2015). Anthony Mendez. IMDB.[3]

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