A First-Class Civil Rights Lesson
Stamp Commemorates Early Latino Victory Against Segregation

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Of all the little pictures for sale at the postage stamp counter -- American flags, Purple Hearts, Dumbo the Elephant, the Incredible Hulk -- one of the newest ones is not so familiar.

Two young people with tan skin study an open book, facing an orange sun. "Mendez v. Westminster 1947," says the stamp. First class, 41 cents. The U.S. Postal Service printed 40 million.

But what does it mean? How many layers of irony and history, coincidence and dreams can be rescued from oblivion and packed onto a stamp?

Here's a clue, printed on the image: "Toward equality in our schools." Then there's the year: 1947. This was seven years before the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, right? Ten years before Little Rock . . .

"I had never heard of the Mendez case, like many people hadn't," says Rafael Lopez, the Mexican-born San Diego artist who designed the stamp.

Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez wanted to send their children to a "white school" in Westminster, Calif., a few miles from where Disneyland would soon rise from the orange groves like a hallucination.

They are dead now, but here in Washington one bright fall day is their daughter Sylvia Mendez, who was the 10-year-old girl who integrated the California schools. She's a 71-year-old retired nurse who still lives in Orange County, not far from Westminster. In Washington, she's a giddy tourist.

She visits a post office in Dupont Circle to buy some stamps, and the clerk wants to know what the new stamp is all about. She sits on the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to have her picture taken, smiling into the sun.

"This is great!" she says, and adds: "I have a picture at home of Earl Warren in front of the Supreme Court."

Of course, Warren: One in the serendipitous cast of characters present for the obscure dress rehearsal that was the Mendez case. Seven years before he wrote the Brown decision as chief justice, he was the California governor, keeping a close eye on this earlier battle.

And Thurgood Marshall: He submitted a brief in the Mendez case, testing arguments he would later use in Brown.

Thurgood Marshall Jr., a Washington lawyer who happens to be on the Postal Service's Board of Governors, says he has been "repeatedly floored" by all the historical crosscurrents surging behind this little stamp.

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.

* * *

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.

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.

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