The Fight for What’s Right

Until the 1940s, many Mexican-American kids in California weren’t allowed to go to school with white kids. Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez helped change that. 

Pictures courtesy of The Mendez Family to be used with permission only. Duplication or reproduction is prohibited. (Sylvia Mendez, Hoover School); From the Lee Russell Photograph Collection, creator: Lee Russell Werner/Dolph Briscoe Center for American History/The University of Texas at Austin (we serve whites sign); ©Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos (whites only sign); William M. Graham/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (farmer); R. Gates/Getty Images (palm trees)


N1: The year is 1944.

N2: Sylvia Mendez and her family have just moved to Westminster, California.

N3: Sylvia and her brother are playing with their cousins. 

Aunt Sally: Come! We’re going to see your new school. 

N1: They arrive at Westminster School, a large brick building with a playground.

N2: They go to the main office.

Aunt Sally: I’m here to sign these children up for school.

N3: The secretary looks at Sylvia’s cousins, who have light skin and light hair.

Secretary: Those two can sign up, but not the others.

Aunt Sally: Excuse me?

N1: The secretary points at Sylvia and Jerome, who have dark skin and dark hair. 

Secretary: They have to go to the Mexican school.

Aunt Sally: But they are American. They speak English.

Secretary: That’s the rule.

Aunt Sally: There must be some mistake.

Pictures courtesy of The Mendez Family to be used with permission only. Duplication or reproduction is prohibited. (all photos)

The Mexican School
Mexican-American children like Sylvia Mendez were forced to attend Hoover Elementary. It was a crowded school known as “the Mexican School.”


N2: The next day, Papa is mad.

Papa: I spoke to the principal. He says all Mexican kids have to go to Hoover Elementary. 

Mama: Why? 

Papa: He just kept saying, “That’s how it’s done here.”

Aunt Sally: Hoover is farther away and not a good school. 

Mama: This isn’t fair. We are American citizens. 

Aunt Sally: What can we do?

Papa: I’m not sure. But a good education is worth fighting for.


N3: Sylvia, Jerome, and their cousins start school at Hoover. 

N1: Each morning, the school bus drops them off in front of Westminster School. 

N2: Then Sylvia and the other Mexican-American kids walk many blocks to their school. 

N3: They sit at wobbly desks in a crowded classroom. 

Miss Wilson: Hi, class. Today the girls will learn to sew, and the boys will build shelves. 

N1: Sylvia raises her hand.

Sylvia: Miss Wilson, will we ever read books or learn math?

Miss Wilson: No. You don’t need to know those things.

N2: At lunch, the children go outside. 

N3: There is no playground.

N1: Sylvia sits eating an apple. Miguel stands over her.

Miguel: Your father is going to get everyone in trouble.

Sylvia: How?

Miguel: He wants my father to sign a petition to send us to school with white kids.

Sylvia: Everyone knows their school is better.

Miguel: My father could lose his job if he signs it. 

Sylvia: Well, it’s not fair to send us to a separate school. 

Miguel: You think you’re better than everyone else? 

Sylvia: No! I just want to learn what white kids learn.


N2: Mama is getting the kids ready for school. 

Jerome: Where is Papa?

Mama: He is talking to other families about the court case.

Jerome: What’s a court case? 

Mama: We think the school system is being unfair to Mexican kids. So we are going to talk to a judge about it. 

Sylvia: If we win the case, will we get to go to the nice school?

Mama: Yes.

Jerome: What if the kids at that school don’t like us?

Sylvia: Sometimes they call us names in the park.

Mama: If they don’t like you, it’s because they don’t know you. 

N3: Jerome looks up at Mama.

Mama: That’s what prejudice is—when you decide you don’t like people for no good reason. 

Jerome: I don’t like eating vegetables. Is that prejudice? 

Mama: No, papito, prejudice is about something like people’s skin color or religion. 

N1: Sylvia thinks about this.

Los Angeles Times (LA Times Headline); Bettmann/Getty Images (supreme court steps)

First Step to Equality
The Mendez family’s court case inspired similar cases. Then in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made an important decision. It decided that it was illegal for children to be put in separate schools based on their skin color.


N2: The family goes to court. 

N3: Papa’s lawyer, Mr. Marcus, questions the head of schools. 

Mr. Marcus: Mr. Kent, do children from Mexican families have to go to Hoover Elementary? 

Mr. Kent: No. If students don’t speak English, then they go to Hoover. 

Marcus: Do you give them a test to see if they know English? 

Kent: Yes. 

Sylvia (whispering): That’s not true! They never talked to us.

Marcus: Are there other reasons you send Mexicans to a different school?

Kent: They need to learn manners. And they are dirty.

Jerome (whispering): No we aren’t!

Marcus: So if a Mexican child speaks English and is clean, could he or she attend Westminster School? 

Kent: Yes.

Marcus: How many Mexican students go to Westminster?

Kent: None.

Marcus: Out of the hundreds of children at Hoover, not one of them is qualified to go to Westminster?

Kent: They’re not as smart as the white children. 

N1: Sylvia and others gasp.


N2: The next week in court, Mr. Marcus questions an education expert. 

Marcus: Mrs. Hughes, is it helpful for Mexican children to go to a separate school? 

Mrs. Hughes: No. It sends the message that Mexicans are inferior. 

Marcus: Does going to a separate school help them learn English? 

Hughes: Not at all. The best way to learn English is to be with others who speak it. 

Marcus: Do you believe that Mexican children should go to school with white children? 

Hughes: Yes. But not just for the education. Kids need to spend time together. It helps them understand each other.

Marcus: I see.

Hughes: That’s the first step to getting rid of prejudice and discrimination. 

N3: Sylvia squeezes Mama’s hand and smiles.


N1: Months later, Sylvia comes home from school.

N2: She sees her parents with tears in their eyes. 

Sylvia: What happened?

Papa: We won the court case!

N3: Sylvia hugs her parents.

Sylvia: I will study hard and make you proud.


N1: Sylvia went on to college and became a nurse. 

N2: Today, she travels around telling her family’s story. 

N3: They paved the way for children all over America.

Sylvia: Everyone deserves an equal chance to learn.

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