The Movement Toward School Desegregation for Mexican-American Communities (by Enrique Romero)

Standards:

  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  2. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  3. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  4. Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  5. Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  6. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

 

Overview: Students will comprehend the significance of the Mendez v. Westminster case in regards to its role in desegregating schools for Mexican and Mexican-Americans.  By understanding the case, each student will not only learn about a long-forgotten case but they will also recognize the efforts made prior to the Brown v. Board of Education verdict to obtain equal educational opportunities.

 

Framework: During this two-day lesson plan on the Mendez vs. Westminster case for high school students, students will read a selected collection of documents ranging from newspaper article posts to interview transcriptions.  These sources provide context and perspective on the Mendez vs. Westminster case, which are further elaborated upon through the use of audio and video aids, such as NPR and PBS learning center.

By the end of the first day, students should have a clear understanding of the development of the Mendez vs. Westminster case.  They should be able to recall specific information that influenced the process and decision of the case, including how Mexican-Americans were perceived during this time period as well as the context from which they are fighting for their educational rights.  By the end of the second day, students should have a strongly developed, well-rounded understanding of the Mendez vs. Westminster case.  In addition, they should also understand how this case is connected to the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ended segregation in the entire nation.  To end the lesson, students will have a writing prompt where they will identify, explain, and analyze the progression of the Mendez vs. Westminster case.

 

Essential Understanding: The targeted high school students will foster an understanding of how the education system hindered select students of color from educational opportunities by specifically looking at what Mendez vs. Westminster aimed to address through the case.

 

Essential Questions:

  • What was the Mendez vs. Westminster case?
  • How did the parties involved in the case respond to the verdict?
  • Why were schools segregated in the first place for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the 1930s and 1940s?
  • Compare and contrast the schooling experiences of Mexican and White students.
  • Was this case enough to cause sufficient change for desegregated schools for Mexican-Americans?
  • How did the Mendez vs. Westminster play a role in the outcome of Brown vs. Board?
  • Can the Mendez vs. Westminster case be considered a movement?

 

Glossary:

De jure – According to rightful entitlement or claim;  by right.

14th Amendment – It forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [1]

Class action suit – A lawsuit that allows a large number of people with a common interest in a matter to sue or be sued as a group. [2]

 

Introduction:

The Mendez vs. Westminster School District federal court case in 1946 was a significant turn of events for Mexican-American children in the Orange Country area.[i]  In the 1920s, a high prevalence of Mexican migration occurred in the United States due to the Mexican Revolution.  As many settled into the southern region of the United States, a “Mexican-problem” began to unfold, causing the demand for some type of filtration to occur.  In an attempt to contain the high increase of Mexicans in the United States, separate facilities were developing for Mexicans.  Various school districts found themselves separating the Mexican and Mexican-American students from their white counterparts.  When parents, such as Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, tried enrolling their children to the nearby school, they were denied such rights because of their brown skin and Mexican sounding last names.  Infuriated with the injustices these children faced, the Mendez family sought to correct this problem.  Through the recruitment of other families with similar stories, the Mendez’s arranged a class case against the school districts that focused on schooling conditions for certain ethnic groups.

Documented as the first federal court case that concluded separate schools for students of color as unequal and unconstitutional, the Mendez v. Westminster case applied de jure segregation to the large urban districts of Los Angeles.[ii]  Such accomplishments were possible through the families that sued the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena School Districts.  In addition, the role of Los Angeles attorney David C. Marcus, in consultation with Thurgood Marshall, showed the interconnections between different ethnic and social groups, such as with African-Americans and Brown v. Board.[iii]  Although there were different opinions between Marcus and Marshall’s approaches for the Mendez case, both agreed that the class lawsuit broke the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States.  Based upon this constitutional right, Mexican-American students had equal protection of the laws in regards to the schooling experience they received from the districts.

Through the separation of Mexican-American students from their white peers, many prominent societal misconceptions were constantly reinforced.  Because it was assumed that Mexican and Mexican-American children came from Spanish-speaking homes, districts tried justifying segregation by stating their concern for English language learners to truly grasp and understand English.  However, there were various examples of students that spoke English very well yet they were still placed in a segregated school.  By the 1930s, 80% of California school districts segregated Mexican students into “Mexican schools,” which were very commonly under-resourced and in run-down buildings.iii  Unfortunately, this separation only promoted the stereotypes of Mexican individuals while also valuing the concept of meritocracy that the United States constantly praises.  In response, the Mexican-American soldiers who fought during World War II disputed this meritocratic ideology.  They argued and questioned how the United States was allowing them to register and risk their lives to defend the country but were unwilling to provide their children with equal educational opportunities.[iv]  Mexican-Americans were meant to feel inferior to the dominant white group.  Moreover, the concept of “passing” as white symbolized the value of light skin, seeing as how Mexican-Americans with lighter complexions could attend better schools since they were mistaken as white.

A settlement was reached in 1946, when Judge McCormick ruled the segregation of Mexican children from public schools as unconstitutional.  Not only was there no law stating the ability for districts to separate Mexican-American students from others (as there was for Native Americans, Chinese, and Japanese children), but also the Fourteenth Amendment of these children was unjustly broken.  Although the school district attempted to file an appeal on the case, the decision was set.  The occurrence and conclusion of the Mendez v. Westminster influenced the lives of not only Mexican and Mexican-American children, but it also had an extremely important influence in the Brown v. Board case for the rest of the nation.  It should be understood that the Mendez vs. Westminster case is part of the continuous struggle for educational equality that still exists to this day in the United States.

 

Materials:

Poster paper and markers

Copies of “Ruling Gives Mexican Children Equal Rights”

NPR Audio: Before ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ 

Video: Mendez vs. Westminster: Desegregating California’s Schools

Transcript of Sylvia Mendez Interview by the Center for Oral and Public History

 

Activities:

Day One:

Hand out a copy of “Ruling Gives Mexican Children Equal Rights” article to each student.  Have the students silently read the article to themselves.  Once everyone is finished reading, break up the class into small groups of 3-4 (depending on the class size) and provide each group with poster paper and markers.  Within each group, the students should work together to create a general summary of information that was presented in the article (i.e. individuals involved, verdict decision, reasoning for verdict, reaction of different groups, etc.)  Note: This article does not go into specific details, but it provides a general background of the case, which will be further developed through the other activities.

Watch Mendez vs. Westminster: Desegregating California’s Schools video.  Inform the students that one of the women in the video is Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who reflects on how the case unfolded during her childhood.  After watching the video, have the students get into their small groups again and update and/or add new information to their poster paper based on the video.  The teacher should then go around to each group and ask them to present a piece of information relative to the case (making sure that information is not repeated).  Allow other students to elaborate or comment on what is shared.  Note: Save the poster papers created by students and hang them up somewhere in class for later reference.

After each group presents, have a larger class discussion on some of the topics that the video presents in regards to the Mendez vs. Westminster case, as well as the implications that come with being Mexican or Mexican-American during this time period.  Possible discussion topics, which address the essential questions, include:

  • The schooling experiences and conditions of Mexican-American children in comparison to white peers
  • The way that Mexican and Mexican-Americans were perceived in society and how this impacted their education and living conditions
  • The development and organization of the Mendez vs. Westminster case
  • The court verdict and the reactions/changes it sparked

Homework:  Give each student a copy of Sylvia Mendez’s interview transcript.  Assign the document as homework and inform students that a discussion will be held during the next class period that addresses this document.

 

Day Two:

At the beginning of class, the teacher should take a couple of minutes to recall the Mendez vs. Westminster case by using the student poster papers from the last class session.

Ask students to take out a piece of paper and write their thoughts or reflections on Sylvia Mendez’s interview transcription.  Prompt them to reflect on quotes or situations that stood out in the document.  This paper will not be turned in.

Introduce students to the NPR audio Before ‘Brown vs. Board of Education.’  Ask students to write down anything that stands out to them as they listen.  After listening to the audio, ask the class to share their thoughts on either the interview transcript or the audio.  Ask students about the connection that exists between the two sources.  Comment on the new ideas that are presented in these two sources about the case:  the concept of cultural identity seen in the interview transcript and the interconnections that exist between Mexican-Americans and other minority groups.

The teacher should take this time to lecture on the relationship that Mexican-Americans involved in the Mendez vs. Westminster case had with other minority groups, such as with the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall.  In doing this, students should learn about the way that the Mendez vs. Westminster case played a role in the later Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Final Writing Assignment:  The students will have a final writing assignment that allows for them to identify, explain, and analyze the establishment and progression of the Mendez vs. Westminster case.  Students will write from the perspective of one of the Mendez children, and they will have to write a letter to a family member in Mexico that is unaware of this case.  In doing this, students should inform the relative about the case and address questions like:  Who was involved?  How did the case end?  Did the case bring any changes and if so, in what ways?  The students should cover the historical and social context of Mexican-Americans during this time, while making sure to cover information they find critical to understanding the case.  The assignment should be 1-2 pages long, and should be turned in one week from the date is it assigned.

 

Additional Sources:

[1]  “14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Web Guides. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2014. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/14thamendment.html&gt;.

[2]  “Class Action.” TheFreeDictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2014. <http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Class%2Baction%2Blawsuit&gt;.

[3]  Regua, Nannette. “Mendez v. Westminster Case.” Mendez v. Westminster Case. N.p., 27 Aug. 2007. Web. 04 May 2014. <http://mendezwestminstercase.blogspot.com/&gt;.

 

 

[i]  Aguirre, F. P. (2005). Mendez v. Westminster School District: How it affected Brown v. Board of Education. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 4, 321-332.

[ii]  “Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California (Mexican Americans).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 17 Nov. 2004. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.<http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/5views/5views5h99.htm&gt;.

[iii]  Blanco, Maria, “Before Brown, There was Mendez”: the lasting impact of Mendez v. Westminster in the struggle for desegregation,” Immigration Policy Center Perspectives, March 2010.

[iv]  “A Tale of Two Schools.” Teaching Tolerance. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2014. <http://www.tolerance.org/activity/tale-two-schools&gt;.

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