Her father, an immigrant from Mexico, and her mother, a Puerto Rican immigrant, went to court in what became a landmark case nearly a decade before the much heralded Brown v. Board of Education ruling declaring separate but equal educational practices unconstitutional.
When the Mendez family went to enroll their children in the school nearest their home in 1943, they were told they had to send their kids to the "Mexican" school nearly a mile away. Segregation in the 1940s was common place. In Southern California, White students attended different schools than Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.
The family filed suit seeking to provide their three children, including Sylvia, a better and equal education. Mendez argued that schools designated for children of color were actually inferior and students who attended such schools were often provided substandard supplies. The families attorney argued that segregation based on nationality or ethnic heritage violated the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment. Mendez v. Westminister ended nearly a century of educational segregation in California. As with the later Brown v. Board of Education, the courts found that separate but equal didn't always equate to equitable.
The court found "A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children...regardless of lineage."
What is most surprising to me is that, while I was being taught about the Mendez case in a classroom in Southern New Mexico in the late 1970s, the case is still not part of the standard k-12 curriculum in California.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor awarded to those who make considerable contributions to the country's national interest. Now in her 70s, Mendez is a tireless civil rights activist who spends much of her time speaking at schools in an effort to encourage kids to stay in school and get an education no matter the obstacles in their paths.