Felicitas Mendez died this week secure in the knowledge that the accomplishments of her family, who led a landmark fight to integrate Orange County schools, finally had been recognized.
Mendez and her husband, Gonzalo, sued the Westminster School District in 1945 when their children were barred from attending school with white children and were ordered instead to enroll in a school for Mexican Americans. The lawsuit eventually became a class action on behalf of 5,000 Latino children in the county.
But for much of the 50 years that followed, the accomplishment was not even a footnote in textbooks, which deeply saddened Mendez.
“They had fought and won, and it hurt her that so many young kids didn’t know,” said her daughter, Sylvia Mendez, 61. “She wanted people to know that Hispanics were not just passive and laid-back and that they did fight for their rights.”
About 200 family members and friends gathered at a memorial service in Whittier Wednesday night to celebrate the life of Felicitas Mendez, who died of heart failure Sunday at the age of 82. She will be buried at 1 p.m. today at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove is among those expected to attend, family members said.
Pastor Fortunato Hernandez, who officiated over the memorial service, said Mendez had asked him recently why God had allowed her to live so long.
“God didn’t take her away until she saw some of the things she needed to see,” Hernandez said, referring to the recognition she received in her last years. “She had to see the results of her effort, of her sacrifice.”
Silvia Mendez said her mother had open heart surgery 12 years ago but was too frail to undergo another operation when her heart began to fail again.
She said that, even though her mother had been quite ill in the weeks before her death, she made a dramatic improvement two weeks ago when a film crew arrived at the family’s Fullerton home to film her for a spot to be shown April 25 at a forum on Chicano history.
The forum, “150 Years of Chicano/Chicana Education: 1948-1998,” is being co-sponsored by the Harvard Educational Review and UC Irvine. It will focus on past and present educational challenges and issues faced by Latinos.
“She was so proud,” Silvia Mendez said of the upcoming forum. “She felt so good that she was finally recognized and was being thanked for something she and my father worked so hard to achieve.”
Felicitas Mendez was hopeful that the forum at UC Irvine would increase national awareness of the Mendez family’s contributions.
“She wanted to be remembered as a person who was for education and for equality,” her daughter said. “She wanted to make sure everyone knew how to read and write.”
Felicitas Mendez had hoped to attend the forum. Instead, children and grandchildren will be there to represent her. The recently filmed remarks will be shown at the conclusion of the forum.
Silvia Mendez and her brothers Gonzalo and Geronimo were the lead plaintiffs in the 1945 lawsuit, which led to a monthlong trial in Los Angeles. The next year, a U.S. District judge ruled that school districts’ policy of maintaining separate campuses violated the 14th Amendment.
Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964 without having been recognized for the role he played in the civil rights movement.
After years of virtual anonymity, Felicitas Mendez wielded a shovel last December at the groundbreaking of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School, a campus named after the couple by the Santa Ana Unified School District. It was the first school in the district named after two people and was the first to honor someone who was still alive.
Despite her contributions, Felicitas Mendez “didn’t like the word activist. She liked to be called a pioneer,” her daughter said. “Whatever she wanted, she went after and she got. This was all through her life. She was not a passive person whom you could step over.”
Silvia Mendez said her mother was passionate, railing against racial discrimination. Her father, she said, was more analytical: He fought school segregation simply because he believed it was unconstitutional.
It was a granddaughter, Johanna Mendez Sandoval, who proposed that the Santa Ana school be named for her grandparents. She and others had gathered more than 1,700 signatures on petitions supporting the idea.
“When the moment came that they dedicated the school, it was unbelievable,” Sandoval said after Wednesday’s service. “It was recognition that was well-deserved. It was about time.”
Added Silvia Mendez: “They are so proud of Grandma. They all want to go to school and go to college and show that this is what she fought for.”
Felicitas Mendez was born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, and moved to Southern California with her family at the age of 12 to work in the fields. After she married Gonzalo in 1936, they opened a bar and grill called La Prieta in Santa Ana and later leased a 40-acre asparagus farm in Westminster.
She is survived by four sons: Victor, Gonzalo, Jerome and Phillip; two daughters, Silvia Mendez and Sandra Duran; 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.