Today at 1:30 p.m. President Obama will place the Medal of Freedom on civil rights and education activist Sylvia Mendez for her work as a Latino education activist. We spoke to the Washington, DC–bound Mendez as she prepared to leave her home in Santa Ana, California, where 64 years ago her parents lead the landmark school desegregation case Mendez v. Westminster that paved the way for the integration of California schools, and later, schools nationwide.
How did you find out about that you were getting the Medal of Freedom?
This lady called me and she said, "I’m a secretary from the White House and you’re going to be getting a medal," and I said, "Thank you," not realizing what it meant and how huge an honor it is. Then I found out it’s the highest honor a president can give and I thought, It’s for me? It’s for my parents, for what they did. Finally getting acknowledged after 12 years going around talking about Mendez v. Westminster.
Are you looking forward to meeting President Obama?
I met him before. He honored me last year and others [in an International Women’s Day White House ceremony in March]. I was sitting right there next to his wife, but everybody got around him so fast, I never even got a chance to shake his hand. And then nobody believed me that I was there. This time, people will take pictures.
With racial equality being at the heart of Mendez v. Westminster, what did you think when he became President?
I thought: The first black president? Now is that integration or is that integration? It’s what we’ve been talking about all these years. That we’re all equal no matter what color or where we come from. I always tell students that anything is possible and when he got elected, there it was. They could see it. There’s our proof that it can be done! Because, remember that the Mendez v. Westminster story is that I was so dark that they told me I couldn’t stay in the white school and my cousins were light so they could. But I had to go to the Mexican school.
What do you remember about the Mexican school?
The school had dirt all around it. Next door was a dairy farm where they had cows; one day, one of the students from the Mexican school was playing with a ball, and it rolled over to the fence, which had electricity. She got caught in the fence, she grabbed it and it wouldn’t let go of her. She was just shaking her. The teacher had to tell the dairyman to turn it off. The other school was concrete and with trees, just a beautiful school with a beautiful playground, but it was for whites. Everything of theirs that wasn’t wanted in the white school, like chairs and old books, got handed down to the Mexican students.
What was it like for you to attend the trial?
To me it was like going to church. I’d have to sit in the front row and listen. All this time that they’re fighting and I’m all excited about going to court and getting all dressed up. All you're thinking as a 9 year old is, "You know, they’re doing this so I can go to that beautiful school, huh?" You’re not really knowing exactly why they were doing it.
When did it hit you?
It wasn’t till I went to that white school and a boy told me that I didn’t belong there, that I’m no good, that I’m just a Mexican and Mexicans didn’t belong there. That’s when I knew exactly what had happened. I felt like when someone stabs you in the heart so bad that I started to cry. I didn’t want to go to this horrible school! And that’s when my mother told me, "Don’t you realize that’s why we went to court? You are just as good as he is. You’re not to be intimidated." Everyone is equal and should have the rights to everything. I finally came to the realization that my parents had done this because they wanted me to be whole. I was 10.
How did you cope with kids who were mean?
I just ignored them and then I’d tell the students that we’re not born with bigotry in our lives. Before we knew it, one of my brothers was president of one of the classes there.
When did you start speaking in schools about the case?
Well, I’d gone on to become a nurse for 33 years and it wasn’t until my mother was dying that she said, "Nobody knows about this story. It’s part of the history of the United States. Everyone knows about Brown v. Board of Education but no one ever even thanked your father for what he did. And I always thought that a street or something should be named for all he did." It wasn’t until then that I made a promise to my mother that I’d go around and talk about it, and I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I wanted to tell students that we’re lawyers, teachers, politicians, that education is important. People have fought for you. My parents fought for you.
What is the students’ reaction when you tell them your story?
Oh my God! I have two emails here. One’s a teacher who says she’s so proud and another from a student in college who has been trying so hard and she said hearing about the case gave her more confidence to carry on.
What do you think of the state of Latino education right now?
It is so bad. Only 1 percent of us have PhDs; only 5 percent of lawyers in the United States are Latino and it’s so horrendous that so many drop out of high school or don’t go on to college. Schools are so focused on teaching so they can pass tests, focused on just math and English. They don’t even give them history. I’m working with a group called P21 [Partnerships for 21st Century Skills], it’s a coalition of teachers and politicians who want to get history and art and music back into schools.
What needs to happen in order to keep Latino kids in schools?
We need to guide them in what they have to do in order to enter college. We need to mentor them. Parents need to be more involved. People have talked a lot about how Latino parents don’t care about education. It’s not that. Some of the parents never went to school or didn’t get far and don’t speak English, work long hours, then wash, cook. The number one thing that the parents have to do is apoyarlos. Encourage them to stay in school and let them know that’s how they’re going to be successful in life.