BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate is Never EqualIn 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated all public schools throughout the United States, the Mendez family of Westminster, California, finally won a three-year fight for an equitable education for their children – and all children like them. In an era when signs reading “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” were far too common, children were relegated to substandard schools based on the color of their skin.

When the Mendez family moved to Westminster, the children – Sylvia and her two younger brothers – expected they would go to their neighborhood school. Instead, they were sent to “the Mexican school” which was little more than a shack surrounded by an electric-fenced cow pasture. The explanation was a dismissive “‘This is how it is done.’”

No matter what the officials claimed, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez refused to accept a deficient education for their children. Gonzalo hired a lawyer and traveled throughout Orange County enlisting other families diminished by segregation. When their initial local victory still didn’t result in an equitable education, they went to the state court in San Francisco and finally, resoundingly won.

Even after such a historical decision, actually attending the Westminster school was not an easy transition for young Sylvia as she endured the taunts of “‘Go back to the Mexican school. You don’t belong here.'” With her parents’ reminders of their difficult battle, Sylvia learned to hold her head high, and “made many friends of different backgrounds. She knew that her family had fought for that.”

Award-winning Duncan Tonatiuh’s unique illustrations are especially effective here: he draws his characters with a definitive, recognizable look – always from the side, with pursed lips, and double-swirly ears. His pictures emphasize we are all created equal, while details like our skin tone, hairstyle, and clothing, distinguish our individuality. Differences aside, all children deserve the same quality education, period.

That said, in his ending “Author’s Note” – in which he further summarizes the Mendez family’s achievements through the decades – Tonatiuh also highlights the de facto segregation that exists today. Although he lives in Mexico, he’s a frequent visitor across the border: “All too often I see this inequality when I visit schools in different parts of the country to read and talk about my books.” This, his latest, is about empowerment, he explains, that children might “realize their voices are valuable and they too can make meaningful contributions to this country.”

In spite of being the historical predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education – as well as what would prove to be successful testing ground for two of Brown‘s most important legal participants, Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren – the Mendez case remains today in Brown‘s shadows. Tonatiuh is clearly writing to change that as titles multiply on bookshelves, school curriculums adapt, and silenced voices grow ever more powerful.

Tidbit: Not without irony, the Mendez farm, which the family was leasing, actually belonged to the Munemitsu family who were imprisoned during World War II, along with some 120,000 other Americans because of their Japanese heritage. Winifred Conkling’s historical middle grade novel, Sylvia & Aki, makes for an excellent companion title.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014


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