Family that paved way for desegregation of U.S. schools honored with park in Westminster

Jessica De Nova Image
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Westminster park to honor family behind school desegregation case
A Westminster family that paved the way for school desegregation in the United States is being honored with a new park and memorial.

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (KABC) -- Before there was Brown v. Board of Education, there was Mendez v. Westminster.

The federal case involving an Orange County family helped pave the way for desegregation of schools in California and the United States.

Seventy five years later, the family behind the legal battle was honored with a park.

At the center of it all was Sylvia Mendez who was only 10 years old at the time.

She remembered her family's sacrifice Thursday. But her father in his time never even heard a "Thank you."

"It just makes me so proud because after the case was won and my father did so much, we lost all our money. He lost everything trying to fight this case. Y nadie siquiera le dijo, 'Gracias, Gonzalo. Thank you for what you've done,' and I think this is it," Mendez said.

That belated "thank you" is coming in the form of the Mendez Tribute Monument Park in Westminster.

Through photos, statues and augmented-reality accessible with a smart phone, visitors can learn how the Mendez case paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision which ordered an end to segregation in schools thrououghout the country.

The Mendez case dates back to 1943 in the Orange County city.

That's when the Mendez family tried to enroll their daughter and sons in a school for white children, but were told they had to attend another school that had less resources, Hoover Elementary, known as the "Mexican school."

The Mendez parents pushed back, teaming up with four other families.

They won.

Obed Silva is a professor of English at East Los Angeles College who said he's been working for the last eight years, alongside his childhood friend and former Westminster Councilmember Sergio Contreras and the community, to build a park memorializing the case.

"It's monumental," Silva said. "It's a long time coming. We need this. Students need to learn about the Mendez vs. Westminster case because it is what set the foundation for the Brown vs. Board of Education," Silva said.

The sculptor and designer, Ignacio Gomez, sought through his art to show that Sylvia's parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas, were larger than life.

"They're monumental in the history of America and the United States of what they accomplished. They were the beginning of opening up equality in education, doing away with the segregation," Gomez said.

Filled with pride, in front of future generations, Sylvia and her family celebrated history and the work yet to be done.

"I would like to see Mendez placed in the standards in the classrooms, where they have to say at least a little sentence, 'Before Brown there was Mendez.' That's all I'm asking, just a little sentence in a school book that says, 'Before Brown there was Mendez,' and so our job has not finished. Our legacy has not been terminated. It will continue to be seen across the United States," Mendez said.

Next year, not far from the new park, the city is scheduled to break ground on another project to honor the family, the Mendez Freedom Trail.