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A First-Class Civil Rights Lesson

(U.s. Postal Service)

Such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II: If not for the injustice done to a farm family named Munemitsu, that dry run for the legal tactics in Brown would not have taken place.

And 60 years later, this compact image of tan skin, an open book, an orange sun would not be for sale at the stamp counter, alongside recent postage commemorating such other historic figures as Mickey Mouse, that resident of Disneyland, and Captain America, that superhero in the struggle for justice.

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Gonzalo Mendez was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1913 and came to Orange County as a boy with his family to escape the Mexican Revolution. Felicitas Gomez was born in 1916 in Puerto Rico and moved to Southern California to work in the fields.

Gonzalo quit school after fifth grade to be a farmhand, then left the fields to be his own boss. After marrying Felicitas, he opened a cantina in Santa Ana. He became a citizen and a respected businessman, even among the Anglos.

During the war, a banker told him of the Munemitsus, who were being shipped to a camp in Arizona. They were looking for someone trustworthy to lease their 40 acres of asparagus in Westminster. Mendez leapt at the chance to be a farmer, not a mere farmhand.

Guess who was one of the biggest advocates of interning the Japanese? An ambitious state attorney general named Earl Warren.

When the Mendezes moved to Westminster, Sylvia, then 8, and two younger brothers were turned away by the white elementary school and directed to the "Mexican school." The girl didn't grasp the drama in the school office, or later at home when her father found out. "We knew my father didn't want us to go" to the Mexican school, she recalls. "And he was going to fight to try and get us into that school" for white children.

The Mexican school was a "terrible little shack," she remembers. The children had to eat lunch outside next to a cow pasture with an electrified fence and flies swarming the schoolyard. And here was Gonzalo Mendez trying to raise his children to be mainstream Americans. He taught them English and insisted they call him "Daddy."

He hired a Los Angeles lawyer named David Marcus. They recruited four other families and sued four Orange County school districts with 5,000 Latino children.

In federal court, witnesses for the school boards claimed Mexican American children were "inferior" in hygiene, ability and language skills. Foreshadowing the debate in Brown, Marcus built part of his case on social science research to argue the deleterious effects of segregation. Sylvia Mendez was dressed her best every day in court, ready to testify in good English, but an older girl was called instead.

The families won. The court declared: "A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality." It was the first time a federal court ruled that separate schools were not equal, says Judge Frederick P. Aguirre of the Superior Court of California, who has written a study of the case.

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