Source: KOCE-TV Foundation
Ever since the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Mexican Americans who lived in the territory gained by the United States struggled for equality. As early as 1855, laws in California made state funding for education available only to white students. Educational codes specifically denied African American, Asian American, and Native American students the right to equal education. Although these laws didn't address Mexican Americans per se, by custom they were made to attend segregated classes in predominately white schools, or, more commonly, separate schools altogether.
In the early 1900s, California's booming citrus industry attracted many Mexican immigrants. By 1920 the Mexican American population in Southern and Central California had tripled. Communities responded by discriminating against Mexican Americans in employment and in access to educational opportunities. Conditions in Mexican American schools were vastly inferior to those in white schools. For example, Mexican American teachers and principals were uniformly paid less than their white counterparts for doing the same job, less money went toward building Mexican American schools than toward building white schools, and classes in Mexican American schools were overcrowded and the curriculum disproportionately focused on vocational skills.
During World War II, the horrors of discrimination abroad fueled a growing resistance to discrimination and segregation at home, particularly among minorities who contributed to the war effort. For Mexican Americans, the resistance peaked in the mid-1940s, when a tenant farmer named Gonzalo Mendez moved his family to the predominantly white Westminster district in Orange County and his children were denied admission to the public schools there. The Mendezes' move was prompted by the opportunity to lease a 60-acre farm in Westminster from the Munemitsus, a Japanese family who had been "relocated" to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The income the Mendezes earned from the farm enabled them to hire an attorney and pursue litigation.
In 1945, Mendez and four other parents filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 Mexican American families to integrate the schools in four Orange County school districts. However, unlike Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which focused on racial discrimination, the plaintiffs in Mendez v. Westminster argued that the students were segregated into separate schools based solely on their national origin. The defendants argued that the schools were segregated due to the handicap of language barriers and that non-English-speaking pupils should attend separate schools until they had acquired some proficiency in the English language.
In 1946, the judge ruled that the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment pertained to equal access to education, and that under that provision, segregation based solely on national origin was unconstitutional. California governor Earl Warren lobbied the California state legislature to enact legislation repealing the state's educational codes that allowed for segregation in public schools.
The Mendez case represented the first successful challenge to the decades-old "separate but equal" doctrine in public school education and established an important legal precedent. In 1948, a federal court in Texas ruled that segregated schools for Mexican Americans were unconstitutional; in 1950, a federal court in Arizona followed suit. Meanwhile, Governor Warren would go on to become the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and write the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.
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