Until the 1940s, Mexican Americans throughout the Southwest faced discrimination in education, based on national origin. In California, Gonzalo Mendez filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of his children and 5,000 Mexican Americans who were denied equal access to education. Mendez won; in 1946, the U.S. District Court in southern California ruled that separate is not equal, formally challenging the decades-old "separate but equal" doctrine.
In the early 1900s, California's booming citrus industry attracted many Mexican immigrant workers. By 1920, the Mexican American population in southern and central California had tripled. Local governments, controlled by whites and supported by the "separate but equal" legal doctrine, reacted by instituting many forms of public segregation. Most school districts with a sizable Mexican American community had "Mexican" rooms in their schools or, more commonly, "Mexican" schools.
In 1945, Gonzalo Mendez and a group of other Latino parents, seeking to end school segregation, filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts: El Modena, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and Westminster.
The plaintiffs, who were all citizens of the United States, alleged that the defendants had segregated students into separate schools solely because the children were of Mexican or Latino descent. They drew a distinction between discrimination based on race and that based on national origin. The defendants argued that schools were segregated because of language barriers and that non-English-speaking pupils should attend separate schools until they had acquired some proficiency in the English language.
The judgment was for the plaintiffs. The court found that the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment pertained to equal access to education, and that under this provision, segregation based solely on national origin was unconstitutional. Governor Earl Warren lobbied the California state legislature to enact legislation repealing the state's educational codes that allowed for segregation in public schools.
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