Mendez v. Westminster

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Mendez, et al v. Westminister [sic] School District of Orange County, et al, 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), aff'd, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc), was a 1947 federal court case that challenged Mexican remedial schools in Orange County, California. In its ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in an en banc decision, held that the forced segregation of Mexican American students into separate "Mexican schools" was unconstitutional and unlawful because Mexicans were white. It was the first ruling in the United States in favor of desegregation.

Five Mexican-American fathers (Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez) challenged the practice of school segregation in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children of "Mexican" ancestry, were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate "schools for Mexicans" in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena school districts of Orange County.


Mexican American school children in the 1940s

Mexican Americans, then legally and socially considered to be "white", were not normally subject to legal segregation in California, and in general, they always went to schools with other white children. Starting in the 1940s, a few scattered districts began to establish separate language-based "Mexican Schools", arguing that Mexican children had special needs because they were Spanish-speakers. Some began forcing all Mexican children into "Mexican Schools" even though that was not the norm and not legally sanctioned by the state of California.

Soledad Vidaurri went to the Westminster Elementary School District in order to enroll her children and her brother Gonzalo Mendez’s kids, Gonzalo, Geronimo, and Sylvia to the school. The Westminster School informed Viduarri that her kids could be admitted to the school. However, Gonzalo, Geronimo, and Sylvia could not be admitted on the basis of their skin color. (Viduarri’s children had light complexions and French surnames and therefore would not be segregated into a different school.) Upon hearing the news, Viduarri refused to admit her children to the school if her brother’s children were not admitted as well. The parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, tried to arrange for Geronimo, Gonzalo, and Sylvia to attend the school by talking to the school administration but both parties were not able to reach an agreement.

Gonzalo Mendez dedicated the next year to a lawsuit against the Westminster School District of Orange County. The School District offered to compromise by allowing the Mendez kids attend the elementary but no other student of Mexican-American descent. The Mendez family declined the offer and continued the lawsuit. The Mendez family believed in helping out the entire Mexican community instead of a handful of children. The Mendez family covered most of the expenses for the various witnesses that would be present in the case.[1]

Court Case[edit]

The plaintiffs were represented by an established Jewish American civil rights attorney, David Marcus. Funding for the lawsuit was primarily paid for initially by the lead plaintiff Gonzalo Mendez who began the lawsuit when his three children were denied entrance to their local Westminster school.[2] Senior District Judge Paul J. McCormick, sitting in Los Angeles, presided at the trial and ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946, finding segregated schools to be an unconstitutional denial of equal protection.[3] The school district appealed to the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld Judge McCormick's decision, finding that the segregation practices violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Governor Earl Warren, who would later become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, where he would preside over the Brown v. Board of Education case, signed into law the repeal of remaining segregationist provisions in the California statutes. Several organizations joined the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the NAACP, represented by Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter[4] and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). More than a year later, on April 14, 1947, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling, but not on equal protection grounds. It did not challenge the "separate but equal" interpretation of the 14th Amendment announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Instead, the Ninth Circuit held that the segregation was not racially based, but that it had been implemented by the school districts without being specifically authorized by state law, and was thus impermissible irrespective of Plessy.


On December 8, 1997, the Santa Ana Unified School District dedicated the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Intermediate Fundamental School in Santa Ana, California.

In 2003, writer/producer Sandra Robbie received an Emmy Award for her documentary Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children / Para Todos los Niños.

On September 14, 2007, The United States Postal Service honored the 60th anniversary ruling of Mendez v. Westminster with a 41-cent commemorative stamp.[5]

On November 15, 2007, the United States Postal Service presented the Mendez v. Westminster stamp to the Mendez family at a press conference at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, California.

In September 2009, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School opened in Boyle Heights. The school was named after Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, parents of American civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, who played an instrumental role in the Mendez v. Westminster case.

On October 14, 2009, Chapman University's Leatherby Libraries dedicated the Mendez et al v. Westminster et al Group Study Room and a collection of documents, video and other items relating to the landmark desegregation case. Chapman also owns the last standing Mexican school building from the segregation era in Orange County, CA.

On February 15, 2011, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Sylvia along with her two brothers, Gonzalo, Jr. and Jerome, were some of the Mexican American students who were denied admission to their local Westminster school, which formed the basis for the suit. Sylvia was awarded the honor for her many years of work encouraging students to stay in school and to ensure that the importance of Mendez v. Westminster in American history will not be forgotten.[2]

In September 2011, the Museum of Teaching and Learning (MOTAL), in partnership with a half-dozen government agencies and universities, opened a nine-month exhibition about Mendez v. Westminster at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, California. The exhibition, for which the team won a 2013 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, continues to travel to other locations to educate the public—both adults and students—about the details around this landmark case.

See also[edit]


  1. The reported opinions of Judge McCormick and the Ninth Circuit, Mendez v. Westminister [sic] School Dist. of Orange County, 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), aff'd, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc).
  2. All Deliberate Speed UC Press (1976), Charles Wollenberg. Each chapter provides a detailed history of the various non-white ethnic groups and their educational struggles in California.
  3. “Knocking on the Schoolhouse Door” 8 La Raza Law Journal 166 (1995), Christopher Arriola. A look at one town involved in the lawsuit, El Modena, and an examination of the appellate briefs used in the case.
  4. Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation UCI Press, (1992) Gilbert Gonzalez. A sociological history of Mexican School Segregation in the Southwest.
  5. The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans Princeton University Press (2004) Stephen J. Pitti. A look at the history of Chicanos in San Jose, CA.
  6. The Barrios of Santa Ana Dissertation published by the University of Michigan Press (1985), Mary Lisbeth Haas. A complete history of the Mexican Community in Santa Ana, CA, up to 1948.
  7. “Chicanos in California” Materials for Today’s Learning (1990), Albert Camarillo. A short, concise history of Chicanos in California.
  8. David S. Ettinger, The History of School Desegregation in the Ninth Circuit, 12 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 481, 484-487 (1979)
  9. "The Mexican American Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity in Mendez v. Westminster: Helping to Pave the Way for Brown v. The Board of Education". Richard Valencia, Teacher's College Record, Vol. 107, Number 3, March 2005, p 389.
  10. Philippa Strum, Mendez v. Westminster : school desegregation and Mexican-American rights, Lawrence, Kan., University Press of Kansas, c2010.
  11. Sandra Robbie, Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children / Para Todos los Ninos. A Sandra Robbie production, c2002.


Further reading[edit]

  • Conkling, Winifred (2011). Sylvia & Aki. Tricycle Press/Random House.  External link in |title= (help)

External links[edit]