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A First-Class Civil Rights Lesson
Integration of Latino and Anglo children in Orange County came to pass with relative peace, without the spitting mobs and Army Airborne escorts present when African American children reported to class in Little Rock a decade later.
Warren was coming to regret his position on the Japanese internment. After the Mendez decision, as governor in 1947, he signed legislation overturning the segregation of Asian and Native American students. (There was no state law segregating African American children.)
Mendez "ultimately made Brown an easier case," says Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor and expert on Brown. "Mendez to me is essential to Brown's ultimate success."
The Munemitsus came home after the war. The families lived together for one harvest. A Munemitsu descendant spoke highly of the Mendezes in a recent documentary, and some Munemitsus have participated in celebrations of the stamp.
The Mendezes moved back to Santa Ana and another cantina business. On the school playground, a boy told Sylvia she didn't belong there because she was a Mexican. Crying at home, the girl said she didn't want to go back to that school. Sixty years later, she can still hear her mother's reply: "You have to go back. This is what we are fighting for."
Her mother said the same thing when Sylvia later hesitated to go to college. She studied for her bachelor's degree in nursing from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and packed peaches from 3 to 11 p.m. She never married but adopted two children. She rose to be a nursing administrator at the University of Southern California Medical Center.
Over the years, the case almost was forgotten. A sister of Sylvia who is about 15 years younger says that in a college Chicano studies class, she was reading about a desegregation case, and to her surprise, some of the main actors were her big sister and parents.
"Have you ever heard of Mendez v. Westminster?" Jos¿ Antonio Tijerino, president of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation in Washington, likes to quiz people. Few have, even Latinos who are in the business of knowing their history. Sandra Robbie, a Latina who attended high school in Orange County, heard of it by chance years later, prompting her to make the 2002 Emmy-winning documentary "Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children/Para Todos Los Ni¿os."
Tijerino helped arrange a salute to Sylvia Mendez in Washington recently, where she also accepted a lifetime achievement award from the National PTA. Left unsaid that morning in the Capitol was that back in 1918, it was local PTAs that called for Mexican American children to be segregated in the first place.
Eventually, the Postal Service's citizens committee in charge of proposing new stamps heard about it. Lopez, the artist, took inspiration from the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jos¿ Clemente Orozco, and he set about condensing their monumentalism onto a postage stamp.
"It needs to be small, it needs to be a quick read, but it needs to be very powerful," Lopez says.
He simplified the figures to resolute, representative types and told the story in part through color. From left to right, the palette moves from dark to light, as the two young readers bend like plants toward the orange sun.
"Education is going to give them enlightenment," says Sylvia Mendez, standing before an enlargement of the stamp on an easel, absorbed by the image. It's all there, she says. The whole story.
What's not there is the postscript:
In Santa Ana, a new public middle school was dedicated seven years ago to honor the family and its struggle for integration.
Nowadays, families live where they can afford, and children attend schools where they live.
Today, the Gonzalo Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School is 95 percent Latino.