When Sylvia Mendez was 8 years old, she wasn’t allowed to attend an all-white elementary school in Westminster. Now 80, she’s giving the commencement address to 2017 graduates of three schools at the University of California, Irvine.
“I’m so honored to be part of the UCI commencement for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, the School of Education and the School of Physical Sciences,” she says. “I was born in Orange County back when California schools were segregated. And today I’m part of the graduation ceremony for a diverse, prestigious university that offers education to all, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, as long as they are qualified.”
Back in 1944, Mendez was most interested in going to the school with the nicest playground, the one her light-skinned cousins with the French last name attended. But she and her siblings were told they could only go to the “Mexican school” down the street. When her parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, sued the school district, she didn’t understand that what her parents wanted for their children was access to the best education, not the best playground.
The lawsuit – Mendez v. Westminster School District – was the beginning of a fight against discrimination that wouldn’t be settled until 1947, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the end to almost 100 years of school segregation in California. That groundbreaking decision set the precedent for the landmark 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed such discrimination nationwide.
Her parents’ successful court case is not taught in textbooks, which Mendez believes is an egregious oversight. For more than 25 years, she’s been talking about her experience to bring attention to her parents’ bravery in demanding an equal education for their children. “Most people – even in California – don’t know what my parents did,” Mendez says. “If it’s not taught in school, then people don’t know. I’ve been speaking out about it, and after such a long struggle, their story can officially be told. Last year, their role in the civil rights movement was incorporated into the California Department of Education’s content standards and curriculum frameworks, so teachers can now teach it in history class. I’m extremely happy about that.”
A civil rights activist in her own right, Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. The nation’s highest civilian award was in recognition of her “mission to spread her message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and walks of life,” said then-President Barack Obama during the White House ceremony.
Her message to UCI graduates June 18 will underscore the importance of education and the advantages her parents secured for succeeding generations. Mendez also wants them to understand the difference one person can make and to seize the opportunities that arise to reach out to others and change lives.
“For these students,” she says, “I am living history and an example of what can be accomplished, no matter your race or background.”