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Recalling ‘Separate But Equal’ in O.C.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana .parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

Sylvia Mendez jokes that she never had her father’s brains. Just imagine, she says, the kind of pressure that put on her in elementary school -- given that her father, Gonzalo, spurred a federal lawsuit just to get her in.

She’s laughing as she recalls the reference, because things turned out just fine. She was a solid student and went on to a nursing career that ended in administration. But it wasn’t so funny in 1944 when she was 8 and couldn’t get into school.

At least, not the white school in Westminster. She had to go down the street to the Mexican American school.

The rest of the story has been chronicled before and now is embedded in California history. Sylvia, two siblings and children from four other families became the heart of a federal case that, when the judge ruled in their favor in 1946, desegregated California schools.

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On Saturday, Mendez and others will take part in the first of what sponsors hope will be a yearlong observance of the 60th anniversary of the ruling. Kicking things off will be the airing in Beckman Hall at Chapman University of a 27-minute KOCE-TV documentary on the case.

Anniversaries are nice, but what Mendez wants is for the story of desegregating California schools to become part of the state’s public school curriculum. While much of America knows about the civil rights struggles of black Americans that outlawed public school segregation in the 1950s, Mendez thinks they don’t know nearly enough about that of Latinos.

That any ethnic group would be barred from California elementary schools sounds crazy in a state that today is as much a melting pot as could be. When Mendez visits schools and tells kids that she’d play with her white friends but then be bused past their school and taken to the Mexican school, they find it hard to believe.

It’s why she wants to tell them. “It’s a legacy left to me,” she says of the efforts her parents began 60 years ago.

There’s an irony. Mendez Fundamental, the intermediate school in Santa Ana named after her parents and that opened in 2001, is upward of 95% Latino. “We’re back to where we started,” Mendez says. “Segregated again.”

That’s the result of Santa Ana’s overwhelming Latino population, but it goes to show how far America’s schools are from the ideal that federal judge Paul McCormick cited in his 1946 ruling in the case that decried segregation: " ... commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the schoolchildren which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals.”

The Mendez story has left a lasting impression on 47-year-old Sandra Robbie. And she has returned the favor. She wrote and produced the documentary, “Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children / Para Todos los Ninos,” which first aired in 2002.

“I’m a Mendez maniac,” Robbie says, with much animation. Of Mexican heritage, Robbie says the Mendez story changed her life. “Everything looked different to me,” she says. “My past, my present, my future.” When she sees the Mendez family depicted in her documentary, she says, “it’s like my family up there.”

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She had always been socially conscious but, even though she grew up in Westminster, Robbie had no idea that history had been made in her hometown. And while Gonzalo Mendez made history when he went off in search of an attorney, Robbie says the story “is a story of parents’ love for their children and all children and a desire for equal opportunity in America.”

That’s the legacy Sylvia Mendez says she wants to maintain. When she tells students the story, she implores them to stay in school. She tells them of her education and how having a career has enabled her to afford to travel the world. She asks them why in the world they would want to drop out of school.

When she looks into their faces in class, she says, she always has a wish: “I want them to live the life that I’m living.”


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