Friday, September 14, 2007

Méndez v. Westminster School District

Students, this case--Méndez v. Westminster-- is very important in Mexican American history because it dealt with the issue of segregation in U.S. schools against Mexican Americans. It also served as an important case in the landmark Brown v. Board decision that took place close to a decade later that ended legal school segregation for African Americans. Méndez v. Westminster further demonstrates how presumably "objective" student testing discriminated against Mexican Americans.

The Fourteenth Amendment

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction of the equal protection of the laws.”

We'll come back to the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment for Mexicans and Mexican Americans in or next set of readings but the important term in this paragraph is persons because it suggests that all people--as opposed to all citizens--have equal protection under the law.

It is significant that the U.S. Postal Service is releasing a stamp to commemorate this important case in the struggle for Mexican Americans' civil rights.

-Dra. Valenzuela

Méndez v. Westminster School District (1947) is one of the early Hispanic Fourteenth Amendment school segregation issue cases - pre HNBA - where the Mexican parents of public school children were joined by several organizations in the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the JACL, AJG, ACLU, NLG and the NAACP.

Méndez v. Westminster - 1947 - USPS Commemorative Stamp to Be Released Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

On Friday, Sept. 14, 2007, the United States Postal Service will release a commemorative stamp to mark the 60th anniversary of Méndez v. Westminster, 64 F.Supp. 544 (C.D. Cal. 1946), aff'd, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947), a groundbreaking legal case-the seven-year precursor to the United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education-in which a group of civic-minded Mexican-American Hispanic parents successfully sued to end segregation in California schools (see case at

In its ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in an en banc decision, held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate "Mexican schools" was unconstitutional. The illustration by Rafael Lopez, a native of Mexico City, integrates the look of Mexican naturalists with the idea of looking forward to the light. Visit your local post office or order online at

On March 2, 1945, five Mexican-American fathers (Gonzalo Méndez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez) challenged the practice of school segregation in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children, along with 5,000 other children of "Mexican and Latin descent", were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate "Mexican" schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena school districts of Orange County. Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Méndez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946, stating in part, "The record before us shows a paradoxical situation concerning the segregation attitude of the school authorities in the Westminster School District. There are two elementary schools in this undivided area. Instruction is given pupils in each school from kindergarten to the eighth grade, inclusive.

Westminster School has 642 pupils, of which 628 are so-called English-speaking children, and 14 so-called Spanish-speaking pupils. Before considering the specific factual situation in the Santa Ana City Schools it should be noted that the omnibus segregation of children of Mexican ancestry from the rest of the student body in the elementary grades in the schools involved in this case because of language handicaps is not warranted by the record before us. The tests applied to the beginners are shown to have been generally hasty, superficial and not reliable. In some instances separate classification was determined largely by the Latinized or Mexican name of the child. Such methods of evaluating language knowledge are illusory and are not conducive to the inculcation and enjoyment of civil rights which are of primary importance in the public school system of education in the United States. Such separate allocations, however, can be lawfully made only after credible examination by the appropriate school authority of each child whose capacity to learn is under consideration and the determination of such segregation must be based wholly upon indiscriminate foreign language impediments in the individual child, regardless of his ethnic traits or ancestry. The natural operation and effect of the Board's official action manifests a clear purpose to arbitrarily discriminate against the pupils of Mexican ancestry and to deny to them the equal protection of the laws We conclude by holding that the allegations of the complaint (petition) have been established sufficiently to justify injunctive relief against all defendants, restraining further discriminatory practices against the pupils of Mexican descent in the public schools of defendant school districts.

However, the district appealed - David C. Marcus, Los Angeles, Cal. (William Strong, of Los Angeles, Cal., of counsel), for appellees. Several organizations joined the appellate case as amicus curiae, including the JACL, AJC, NLG, ACLU and the NAACP. The Nat. Ass'n Advancement of Colored People was represented by Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter, both of New York City, and Loren Miller, of Los Angeles, Cal., for, amicus curiae.
A. L. Wirin and Saburo Kido, both of Los Angeles, Cal., for Japanese-American Citizens League. Will Maslow and Pauli Murray, both of New York City, Anne H. Pollock, of Los Angeles, Cal. (Alexander H. Pekelis, of New York City, Spe. Advisor), for American Jewish Congress, amicus curiae. Julien Cornell, Arthur Garfield Hays and Osmond K. Fraenkel, all of New York City, A. L. Wirin and Fred Okrand, both of Los Angeles, Cal., for American Civil Liberties Union, amicus curiae. Charles F. Christopher, of Los Angeles, Cal., for Nat. Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles Chapter, amicus curiae.

More than a year later, on April 14, 1947, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the district court's ruling. See this link for more information.

No comments: