Sylvia Mendez was beside herself on that first day of school. She was finally going to what she described in an interview given to Centro on December of 2011 as the “white school” with “the manicured lawns and that beautiful playground.” The children and faculty were, for the most part, incredibly nice. The teacher asked her students to greet Sylvia, welcoming her. All seemed well until the bell rang. Sylvia remembers what happened to this day: “we go out to play and this little white boy comes up to me and he says, ‘you are Mexican, what are you doing here? Mexicans aren’t supposed to be in this school’…and I started crying, crying and crying…and it hit me…and I didn’t wanna stay there…” She ran home to her mother to tell her as much. Felicitas Mendez would have none of it. She told Sylvia, “Que no sabes porque estabamos peleando?...Aren’t you aware what we are fighting for? We are fighting for you so you can feel just as equal, so you could feel just as good as he is…” That was the first time Sylvia realized exactly what her parents had been struggling for.
What hit Sylvia Mendez on that day was what had hit her parents, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, only a few years before when they first tried to enroll their three children in a different school—in the school district of Westminster where their children belonged because of the proximity of the farm they leased and lived on. In the California of the 1940s, Latino children were anything but equal to their white counterparts unless they looked the part. In fact, the blatant prejudice against Sylvia and her brothers Gonzalo and Géronimo was undeniable given the fact that Sylvia’s lighter-skinned cousins were welcomed into the school. So began a little told story of the case that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education—a story even fewer realize concerned children born to a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother.
It all began innocently enough, as Sylvia recalled in the Centro interview, “What happened at the beginning, it was interesting. My father asked my Aunt Sally to take us to the school to be enrolled…to a school that was close to the farm. And my aunt’s last name was Vidaurri. Vidaurri because one time the French people had occupied Mexico and my uncle’s name was Vidaurri because he was part French. Aunt Sally went to the school with Gonzalo, Geronimo, and I and my cousins. My cousins were very light skinned, and they told her, ‘Well, you can leave your children here, but you’ll have to take your brother’s kids to a Mexican school.’ And I always tell students when I go to speak at schools that my aunt did a Rosa Parks stand, and said, ‘I’m not leaving my children here if you won’t take my brother’s.”
Sylvia at the time did not know much about what had happened other than the fact that a furious Aunt Sally turned to them and told them they were leaving. When Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo heard about what had happened at the school, he assured his sister that a mistake must have been made. After reaching out to the school and later to the superintendent of schools, he confirmed that his children were not welcome in any of the white schools in Westminster.
Now as angry as Soledad (“Sally”,) Gonzalo went to a Latino organization to request support in his efforts to challenge the county’s policy of segregation. When the organization turned him down, he returned home, dejected. Felicitas Mendez interjected. Sylvia recounts that it was her mother who convinced Gonzalo to push the struggle forward. As owners of a prosperous farm (they leased the farm from a Japanese family in an internment camp—the Munemitsu Family—and for all intents and purposes ran it as their own. Later, they would return it to the owners,) they could do as much. “My mom says, ‘we can do it alone. We have the money right now…’” And that is precisely what they did. Gonzalo and Felicitas fit the bill for a class action suit against Westminster County. Mendez v. Westminster “challenged the segregation of Latinos” in California and ended de jure segregation of Latinos, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian children in the state.
The case has long been recognized as central to the history of Chicano struggles in California. Recently, it has been also recognized as an important precedent to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. Although many of the key figures in Brown vs. Board of Education were involved with the Mendez case, from Robert L. Carter to Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren themselves, a direct connection between the two took some time because the case was resolved in the federal court in California and never went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert L. Carter, who drafted the actual argument used in Brown, confirmed the connection in PBS’s documentary on the subject,
Click on the photograph for additional images
“I came in contact with this case Westminster vs. School Board [sic], which is in California, in which these Spanish speaking children as I recall where the school board was segregating them, keeping them together under the theory that they would learn English better that way or some such thing, but it ended up with them being like blacks in the South with the facilities being unequal and so forth. And, the, when I learned about that, I was…I think it was a time when Thurgood was sick and not in the office, and what I did was to get the documentation in file to write a brief, and the brief being segregation per se is unconstitutional…and to utilize that [the Westminster case], as a matter of fact, as a model for the brief eventually in Brown vs. Board of Education, which I wrote, so that’s the link between Westminster and Brown.”
Today, there’s no doubt that Mendez vs. Westminster matters. Two schools are named after Felicitas and Gonzalo in Southern California. In 2007, the postal service also honored the couple with a nifty and colorful stamp. The icing on the cake occurred in 2011 when President Obama awarded Sylvia Mendez the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lifetime TV even approached Sylvia to turn her parents story into a love story fit for the channel (had this happened I am convinced that Valerie Bertinelli would have vied for the role of Felicitas.)
What’s less discussed, at least in the way it deserves to be discussed and acknowledged, is the fact that this episode in the history of the United States, in the history of the struggle for Civil Rights, in the history of Chicano struggles, is also an important part of the history of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Sylvia herself is adamant about this, “We didn’t have that divide in Mendez vs. Westminster, which not many people are aware of…it wasn’t just the Mexicans in the court case. We also had [Jan Malban] who were also Puerto Rican, who were also friends of my family, and there were two other Puerto Rican families who were part of the Mendez vs. Westminster case aside from us….” This was also not the first case to bring Puerto Ricans and Mexicans together in California. The attorney for the case was hired because of his successful representation of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans “who had been segregated in the public parks and pools of San Bernardino.” (Ayala and McCormick, 28)
Beyond the two other Puerto Rican families that joined the suit, there was Felicitas Mendez. It’s easy to dismiss Felicita’s role in all this if we simply study the case itself. While Gonzalo spent his days in the courts, Felicitas managed the farm that paid for all legal proceedings and “organized committees to support the legal challenge to segregation”(Ayala and McCormick, 27). Under her care, the farm thrived and prospered. Considering the fact that the Mendez’s paid for most legal fees, including the wages of the other families in the case, Felicitas’ role was pivotal to the success of the case. That determination and resilience to see her children treated equally to other American citizens may be traced back to her formation as the child of Puerto Rican migrants who did not shy away from a good struggle for equal rights.
Felicitas Mendez was born Felicita (it’s unclear at what point and why she became known as Felicitas instead of Felicita) Gómez Martinez in Juncos, Puerto Rico to Felipe Gómez Arroyo of Juncos and Teresa Martínez of Naguabo. Felicitas’ father, Felipe was quite an adventurer, and he jumped at the first opportunity to bring his family to the States.
As Sylvia shared, “There was a time in history where Puerto Ricans were allowed to come to the United States to work in the fields, and they got free passage to come here…so my grandparents got all excited and brought the whole family…because my grandfather had gone to New York before, and he had gone back and he wanted to come back to the United States, and this was a way to bring the whole family to the United States to work in the fields of Arizona….”
Sylvia Mendez speaks with Centro, December 7, 2011
Indeed, according to Cesar Ayala and Jennifer McCormick’s “Felicita ‘La Prieta’ Mendez (1916-1998) and the end of Latino school segregation in California,” in 1926, on the heels of the Immigration Act of 1924, Arizona welcomed Puerto Rican migrants to work in the cotton fields in what seems almost a fluke in the history of Puerto Rican migration to the United States. The Arizona Cotton Growers Association soon came to regret the decision to bring migrants from Puerto Rico to the fields. So did the migrants themselves. “When they got there,” Sylvia recounts, “my grandfather could not believe the horrible place they had been brought to. They had been brought to work in the cotton fields and they were brought to live in a place without running water, without electricity, without facilities…and they weren’t used to that kind of a treatment…they were treated like peons…” Felipe was one of many Puerto Rican migrants who demanded better treatment and labor conditions through a series of protests, revolts, and ultimately through dispersion to other states.
Felicitas’ family relocated to California, where her father went to work on a farm picking oranges. That’s where Felicitas met Gonzalo at her father’s prompting. For Gonzalo, it was love at first sight. For Felicitas, not so much until one day he offered her a ride home. Sylvia shared, “My father went to her and he was like, ‘do you want a ride home Felicitas?’ And she said, ‘Ok.’ And my father stole her. He took her all the way to San Diego, and didn’t bring her back, and that’s how they stayed together. And they married….and that’s how they got together.” Together, Felicita and Gonzalo built a prosperous life in California, first as restaurant owners and later running their asparagus farm, where Felicitas supported and encouraged her husband to fight Westminster's segregation policies. Given the labor struggles her father engaged in when they first arrived stateside, it’s no surprise that Felicitas would have urged her husband to push for the rights of their children.
Felicitas’ Boricua identity revealed itself in bits and pieces throughout her life in California and in her interactions with her own family. When she learned about what had happened to her three children, she could not believe that her children who were “igual de prietos que yo” (Ayala and McCormick, 26) were not allowed into the same schools as their lighter cousins. Worse, both her and her husband were citizens of the United States—Felicitas because she had been born in Puerto Rico. She recounted, “Everybody that was a minority was treated the same…I was a citizen, born a citizen in Puerto Rico. I could not even go to a theater and sit with the other people.” (Ayala and McCormick, 30)
Unpacking Felicitas’ identity (as a Puerto Rican, as a Chicana, as a prieta, among other things) may have helped silence her story in the mainstream, collective knowledge of notable Puerto Ricans in the United States. To be fair, she identified herself deeply with the Mexican community she belonged to, but this does not mean that she forwent or ignored her Puerto Rican identity. While we will never know just how connected to her Puertoricanness Felicitas truly was (she passed way in 1998), her daughter Sylvia and her other daughter Sandra, attest to her connection to her roots. Speaking of Felicita’s experience growing up as a Puerto Rican in a Mexican community, Sylvia shared, “My mother came very young, and she grew up with Latinos. You couldn’t tell she was Puerto Rican because she spoke Spanish like a Mexican, but she never, never denied that she was Puerto Rican, and she would always let everybody know that she was Puerto Rican. That’s why they called her ‘la Prieta.’” In fact, before leasing the farm, the family had even named a restaurant after this identifier—La Prieta. Sharing about their own experience growing up the daughters of a Puerto Rican mother, Sandra chimes, “We ate arroz blanco with Mexican beans….tostones…We had la música and the customs with the primas with the coconut oil and getting the hair pressed before we went to school…the Puerto Rican is always there.” In gist, whenever her daughters got into trouble, Felicitas would blame it on their Mexican side. In that simple act, she revealed consciousness about her and he children’s complex identity. Felicitas’ Puerto Rican identity seeped into habitual corners shared with her family and daughters, making her experience deeply relevant to Puerto Rican history and identity in the United States.
Felicitas Mendez’s struggle is commonly misunderstood as a purely Chicano struggle. It is important to remember that Felicitas’ opinion, identity, and interaction with the world around her was informed by several experiences, of which being Puerto Rican was a central one. In diverse spaces like the United States, culture is quite adaptive. We operate alongside many identifications. Where Felicitas was seen as black in Arizona and Mexican in California, she may have seen herself as all of these things, as well as a mother, a farmer, and then some. To better define and identify the history of Puerto Ricans in the United States, inevitably we should look at the places were different identities, people, communities intersect. That’s where new, powerful stories about Puerto Ricans in the U.S. exist.
When Felicita fell ill, during her last days, she told her daughter, “We didn’t just do it for you, Sylvia. We did it for all the children…I think this is history of the United States and everybody should know about it, Sylvia.” Felicita, I hope this helps.
Cesar Ayala & Jennifer McCormick, “Felicita ‘La Prieta’ Mendez (1916-1998) and the end of Latino School Segregation in California,” in Centro: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (19) 2007: 13-35.
All photos are courtesy of Sylvia Mendez.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 4 February 2015.