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OC woman to receive Medal of Freedom award

February 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
An Orange County woman will soon be honored with the country's highest civilian honor.

As a young girl Sylvia Mendez was at the center of a lawsuit that ended school segregation in California. It all started in Westminster, where Mexican-American children lived next door to an all-white school but were denied entrance.

Black and white photos are proudly displayed in Mendez's Orange County home. It is a reminder of her family's struggle that changed history.

"They were fighting to show I was equal to everyone else," said Mendez.

In 1945, when Sylvia was 8-years-old, her parents Felicitas and Gonzalo filed a lawsuit after their children were turned away from an all-white school in Westminster. Her father, a businessman, became furious learning his children would be forced to attend a Mexican school.

"He couldn't believe it," said Mendez. "This blatant discrimination, right there in your face."

The Mendez family, joined by several other working families, won their fight in 1947. It ended segregation in California schools, but Sylvia's father never received recognition.

"He died very young at 51 and no one even thanked him," said Mendez.

She said she would never forget her mother's words.

"She would remind me, 'Sylvia we did this and no one knows about it'," said Mendez. "'That's the history of the United States'."

The 74-year-old retired nurse promised to start teaching children about the landmark case, Mendez vs. Westminster. Slowly more people learned about the significance. A school in Los Angeles and one in Santa Ana now bear her parents name.

"It became clear to me this was a story my children had to know," said Sandra Robbie, who is a Mendez vs. Westminster specialist at Chapman University. "Every child had to know."

Robbie is developing the Mendez Museum and American Dream Center through Chapman University.

In a couple of weeks, Mendez will travel to Washington D.C. where President Barack Obama will award her the Medal of Freedom, which is the country's highest civilian honor.

"It's just a huge honor for my parents," said Mendez. "I wish they were alive so they could see this. I am so proud I have come this far, and my legacy to my mother is being fulfilled."