National Hispanic Heritage Month begins in the U.S. on September 15, celebrating the history, culture, heritage, and achievements of Hispanic and Latino Americans. To mark the occasion, Google is releasing a Google Doodle honoring Felicitas Mendez, a Puerto Rican business owner and civil rights pioneer who was instrumental in desegregating U.S. public schools.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1916, Mendez moved to the U.S. as a preteen where her family worked in the fields. She eventually married Mexican immigrant Gonzalo Mendez, and together they opened bar and grill La Prieta in Santa Ana before moving to Westminster to lease an asparagus farm.
In 1944, the Mendez family attempted to enrol their three children Sylvia, Jerome, and Gonzalo Jr. in 17th Street Elementary School — a whites-only school that was much better resourced than the Mexican school they were attending. However, the children were turned away on the basis that they were “too dark,” while their lighter-skinned cousins were accepted.
This prompted the Mendezes to sue not only the Westminster school district, but three other Orange County school districts as well. Joined by four other Mexican American fathers, the Mendezes spearheaded a class action lawsuit to demand an end to school segregation for 5,000 Mexican American students. The suit was also primarily funded by the Mendezes, helped by the success of their farm which Felicitas managed while Gonzalo focused on the suit.
In 1946, the U.S. federal district court ruled that maintaining separate schools for Mexican American children was unconstitutional, as it denied them equal protection under the law. At the time, there was no explicit law concerning segregation of Mexican Americans, who were legally considered white. This decision was affirmed on appeal, laying groundwork not only for the integration of Californian public schools, but also the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling that racial segregation in all U.S. public schools was unconstitutional.
Google’s Doodle was created by Latina designer Emily Barrera, and depicts Mendez smiling as Gonzalo takes the couple’s three eldest children to the formerly whites-only school. Sylvia has since continued her parents’ work in advocating for civil rights in the US, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“Don’t you know what we were fighting?” she recalled her mother telling her, after a white boy had bullied Sylvia on her first day at her new school. “We weren’t fighting so you could go to that beautiful white school. We were fighting because you’re equal to that white boy.”