Sylvia Mendez & Desegregation

Sylvia Mendez (1936–) was born to a Mexican immigrant father and a Puerto Rican immigrant mother. As a primary school student in Orange County, California, Sylvia was not allowed to attend white schools and was required to attend so-called “Mexican schools.”


According to Professor Gilbert Gonzalez at the University of California, Irvine, school segregation first appeared in Orange County in 1919, and by the 1940s, more than 80 percent of students of Mexican heritage were attending separate schools from Whites.


Those schools were “designed to Americanize the students—speaking Spanish was prohibited—and also to train boys for industrial work and agricultural labor and girls for housekeeping.”¹

When Sylvia was eight years old, she and her siblings were denied admission to the white school near their Orange County home. The family galvanized support from the community by meeting with community leaders and with other Mexican American families and brought their case to the local federal court.

Sylvia Mendez, March 17, 2018.

In the landmark desegregation case, Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al. (usually referred to as Mendez v. Westminster), de jure segregation in California ended and became an example for other decisions such as the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. (usually referred to as Brown v. Board of Education), in which the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.


Mendez was awarded the
Presidential Medal of Freedom
in 2011. 


Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Sylvia Mendez.


Prepare a 4–5-minute presentation that includes a summary of Sylvia Mendez’s accomplishments, specific types of civic engagement mentioned in the handout, and the impact of Mendez v. Westminster on democracy in the United States.


Also, share your thoughts on whether you think Sylvia Mendez and/or two other civically engaged Americans of your choosing should be included in all U.S. high school history textbooks.

Sylvia Mendez and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Dr. Joseph Leonard, Jr., on September 25, 2014.

  • et al.—abbreviation of et alia, meaning “and others” 

  • de jure—based on laws or actions of the state

  • Presidential Medal of Freedom—the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors



  1. Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Mendez vs. Segregation: 70 Years Later, Famed Case ‘Isn’t Just about Mexicans. It’s about Everybody Coming Together,’” Los Angeles Times, 17 April 2016, [31 July 2020]. 

Next Up:



Discuss what you've learned through your assignment on civically engaged Americans.



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Watch a short profile of student activist Michelle Hua.

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