By Irene Sanchez
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the ruling that desegregated schools in the state of California. While Mendez is talked about a little more now than when I was a younger person, it is not talked about enough. The Mendez case was the precursor to the landmark supreme court case of Brown v. Board of Education that took place in 1954, desegregating schools in the ENTIRE United States. As US courts and many others have cited, “Thurgood Marshall represented Sylvia Mendez and Linda Brown. Marshall used some of the same arguments from Mendez to win Brown v. Board of Education.” In addition, former CA governor Warren, who became a chief justice of the U.S. supreme court, did so after signing the legislation that ended school segregation in California. He would later author the Brown decision ending the “separate, but equal” precedent.
Those arguments are important because they cite the 14th amendment which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The 14th amendment is one that continues to be used in many cases for civil rights and should be known.
As a public school Ethnic Studies and specifically Latina/o/x studies teacher for the past 5 years at 3 high schools I teach at every day, I often have students in my class that do not have knowledge of the 14th amendment or the many other amendments, laws, or policies, that have been used to win court cases that have violated the civil rights of Chicano/Latino people in the U.S. since 1848, the year the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed that made Mexicans on this side of the border the first non-white group to be U.S. citizens (and classified Mexicans as white-that’s another essay).
As the Mendez decision shows us, the 14th amendment is essential to knowing, as Judge Paul McCormick, the judge who presided over Mendez stated, “Equal protection in the public school system,is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. 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.”
There has been a failure ever since 1848 to give Mexicans and now, today including, Latina/o/x people their full civil rights. In books, films, essays, and old recordings, we often hear that Mexicans during these time periods have been treated as second class citizens. I would argue more broadly that Latina/o/x people including Chicana/o/x people continue to be treated like second class citizens today, especially our young people.
During this pandemic we have seen those inequalities once again come to light. Our students that are in communities that are poor and working class, the ones that have been historically and presently marginalized are the same communities that have suffered as essential workers, as those suffering from inadequate medical care, as those struggling to catch up in an educational system that was never designed for them to succeed in. While many can say things have gotten better and I would agree to an extent, there is still much work to be done in education and for our larger community’s needs.
A report published by the UCLA Civil Rights Project in 2019 found that schools in California are still segregated today, with California having the most segregated Latino student population nationwide, with 58% of Latino students attended schools that are intensely segregated.
Segregation is a fact that I see every single day in the schools I work in and the school that my 4th grade attends, also in my district. The district I teach in itself is over 92 percent Latinx students, while the population of the city does not mirror that statistic. I can also recall a few years ago when protesting racist comments made by teachers and a counselor at my old high school, Rubidoux High School in Jurupa Valley, CA, I was shocked to hear of the racist comments, but also shocked that my old high school had a student population that was over 90 percent Chicano/Latino students and those events still transpired.
It is no wonder then that today as the new Ethnic Studies law has been signed that Chicano/Latinos issues/events/stories in the California Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum continues to be underrepresented in even being suggested to be taught in a state that has majority Latinx students in public schools.
It is important to acknowledge these events. I want to be sure that not only my students remember these events, but that they also remember why and how they happened, in what ways they were resisted, how they connect to our communities current conditions, and what can be done to ensure that these issues don’t become issues we look back and ask years later: We still have to deal with this? Why are we still treated as second class citizens?
Education is essential, inside and outside of the classroom, but the facts remain that Latinx people still have some of the lowest educational attainment rates and the highest poverty rates in the U.S. and that needs to change. I don’t have all the answers as I ask questions while walking my journey, but I do know we need more teachers to reflect the students we have in our schools, we need to advocate for more equitable ways of funding our public schools and demand that it happens, and we need to ensure that the cost of college does not remain a barrier to our children. There are so many issues to address, but I invite you with me to think of the ones you can address with your skills and abilities from where you are reading this from. That’s one way we can honor the past and those who came before us. That’s how we can honor the people who fought for equal education from Mendez v Westminster, Alvarez v. Lemon Grove, the Maestas case in Colorado, The East LA walkouts and many other events we have yet to uncover.
As the week continues, come back to this article to find links I use teaching as well as other resources on school segregation and how the Chicano/Latino community resisted and fought for their civil rights.
Be well gente, Xicana Ph.D.
Mendez v. Westminster
Zinn Education Project: https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/mendez-v-westminster/
Sandra Robbie’s Documentary “For the Children”: https://youtu.be/F46Mlzt2tFc
Alvarez v. Lemon Grove
The Lemon Grove Incident (film) https://www.pbs.org/video/the-lemon-grove-incident-gcrfxv/
Zinn Education Project: https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/lemon-grove-incident/
Lemon Grove Historical Society: https://www.lghistorical.org/historic-lemon-grove/the-lemon-grove-incident/
Maestas case in Colorado 1914: https://www.maestascase.com/
PBS article on Maestas case: https://www.rmpbs.org/blogs/rocky-mountain-pbs/maestas-case-alamosa-colorado/
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