Magazine Feature

Why Mendez Still Matters

Meet the school desegregation case that still affects ELL instruction today.
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Courtesy of the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives, Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University

Pictured above: Gonzalo Mendez Jr.’s second-grade class picture from the 17th Street School in Westminster, California. Gonzalo was allowed to enroll in 17th Street after his father (along with Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino and Lorenzo Ramirez) brought suit against the city of Westminster. 

The story of Soledad Vidaurri and her brother, Gonzalo Mendez, should have had a happy ending. That might explain why it’s almost always given one when it’s mentioned in American history classes.

In the mid-1940s, Vidaurri went to enroll her three children and her brother’s three children in a California elementary school. Her children, with their light complexions and French surname, were enrolled easily. But Mendez’s children, who had darker skin and a Spanish surname, were relegated to the school for Mexican immigrants.

Vidaurri refused to enroll any of the children. Mendez identified four other fathers in similar circumstances, and together they filed a federal lawsuit against the district, alleging it was in violation of state laws prohibiting school segregation based on race. The district quickly folded and offered Mendez a compromise: We’ll enroll your kids—and only your kids—if you drop the lawsuit. Mendez turned it down.

In 1947, a full seven years before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Mendez and the other plaintiffs struck one of the earliest blows against school segregation when a federal court in California ruled that the segregation was illegal.

It was a great victory, a precursor to the Brown decision and a landmark triumph in the fight for Mexican-American civil rights. At least, that’s the simplified synopsis—one that, as Michigan State University Professor Maribel Santiago puts it, fits nicely with our country’s collective tendency to view the civil rights movement as a model of constant progress instead of acknowledging the starts, stops, stutters and backward steps that slow any movement toward equality.


The Legacy of Mendez

While the Mendez case was certainly not a step backward, neither was it the analogue of Brown it’s sometimes understood to be.

Lorenzo, Ingacio, Josephina and Silvino Ramirez | Why Mendez Still Matters | TT58 | Teaching Tolerance
Lorenzo, Ignacio, Josephina and Silvino Ramirez of El Modena, California, in 1935.

For one thing, the ruling applied only within the boundaries of the Ninth Circuit. While the Mendez decision was referenced in later court cases, it did not hold the national authority of a Supreme Court decision like Brown. More significantly, the court did not ban racial segregation with Mendez; it only determined that Orange County officials had imposed a form of segregation that California law did not allow. The court ruled against the district because, in California at the time, Mexicans were considered white. Had the Mendez children been Asian, for example, the outcome might have been different. The constitutionality of racial segregation in schools—the larger question the U.S. Supreme Court would have to answer in Brown—was not under scrutiny in this case. (California did pass a law shortly after Mendez outlawing racial segregation in schools.)

Arthur Palomino | Mendez v. Westminster | TT58 | Teaching Tolerance
Arthur Palomino, age 7, son of Mendez plaintiff Frank Palomino.

To recognize the limits of the Mendez ruling is not to suggest that the case is unimportant. On the contrary, a key reason to study Mendez today relates to another persistent means of school segregation: language-based separation. After Mendez, schools in the Ninth Circuit could no longer segregate children on the basis of their Mexican ancestry. Left unanswered was the question of whether those same children could be segregated based on specific learning needs, such as English language learning.

Many state and school officials at the time argued that Mexican-American students who struggled to understand English needed special training. While Spanish-speaking students did receive focused language training, they were also isolated from their peers and unable to consistently attend the classes in math, science and history that would allow them to stay on grade level. Over time, they fell further and further behind their English-speaking classmates.

Gonzalo Mendez Sr., Felicitas Mendez and Gonzalo Mendez Jr. | Mendez v. Westminster | TT58 | Teaching Tolerance
Gonzalo Mendez Sr. and Felicitas Mendez with their son, Gonzalo Mendez Jr.

The question the Mendez ruling failed to address still challenges schools—and courts—today: How can schools ensure equal education to non-English-speaking students without segregating them?

“All of these years later, we know what the research says, but the law has not entirely caught up with the research,” said attorney Zoe Savitsky, a deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has litigated several cases on behalf of English language learners (ELLs). “Education researchers know that it is not just possible but better for ELLs to teach them in settings where they interact regularly with their English-speaking peers. I think it speaks to the complexity of the issues that there were all of these really progressive victories in the 1940s and we’re still litigating these issues today.”


Litigating Toward Equity

Beginning in the late 1960s, states with high numbers of Spanish-speaking students witnessed an endless string of lawsuits, all aimed at either expanding or diminishing programs that helped English language learners better assimilate (the assumed goal for ELLs at the time). Those lawsuits and the resulting rulings didn’t provide perfect answers, but they shaped the basic expectations of what public schools need to provide when it comes to educating ELLs.

One of the earliest was the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols, which originated in San Francisco. Several Chinese-American students filed a lawsuit because the school district had implemented no language courses for ELLs. The district, on the other hand, took the position that by not offering special classes, they were treating Asian-American students equally.

The Supreme Court disagreed: “[S]tudents who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education,” Justice William Douglas wrote for the majority. “We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.”

“Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education.”

—Justice William O. Douglas on behalf of a unanimous United States Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols (1974)

The Lau opinion had lasting influence and, years later, resulted in the U.S. Department of Education establishing a number of ELL guidelines requiring schools to identify English language learners, establish a timeline for leveling and placing students, identify teachers’ standards and determine a best course of action. Lau also resulted in the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division updating its anti-discrimination policy to include discrimination based on language.

“Basically, Lau made it clear that you couldn’t just sit a non-English-speaking student in a classroom and pretend that all is OK,” Savitsky said. “There had to be a good-faith effort to educate the students.”

But what the Lau case didn’t—and couldn’t—do was establish clear ways for districts to meet the new guidelines. After all, it’s one thing to say that all ELLs must be educated properly. It’s quite another to juggle the educational needs of hundreds or thousands of students, especially in high-poverty school districts.

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, New York, California and other states have dealt with federal lawsuits over the ambiguity that has lingered since the Mendez and Lau rulings. There have been lawsuits over the availability of ELL courses, the degree of segregation imposed by ELL programs, the quality of instruction, the effectiveness of the programs and the state resources devoted to them.

In some of these cases, courts have recognized fundamental requirements for ELL instruction. Most derive from Castaneda v. Pickard, a 1981 case in which the Fifth Circuit held that, at a minimum, ELL programs had to be based on sound educational theory and had to work in practice. Many courts across the country have adopted this twofold standard for ELL programs in their own states.

Some of the programs that end up in court are implemented and taught by talented and well-meaning administrators and teachers. Often referred to as “immersion programs,” they generally require that students spend up to five hours per day essentially segregated from their English-speaking peers.

This segregation can be traumatic for immigrant students, who are already more likely to experience both racial and economic segregation. Because they are missing instructional time in their other subjects, students in these programs can also fall behind in their courses. Described by University of Texas Professor Jennifer Keys Adair as “multi-layered discrimination,” the segregation enforced by these programs could dramatically lower students’ self-worth and result in serious academic and behavioral issues later in their education.

In her work on migration policy, Adair also points out that the segregation and discrimination experienced by some ELLs is not the unfortunate result of well-meaning teachers and administrators.

“A 2003 class-action suit on behalf of poor children in California highlighted the state’s use of inferior facilities and curricula, and poorly designed assessment instruments to teach ELL children,” Adair writes. “Studies of children of Latino immigrants have found they are more likely to attend elementary schools in high-poverty areas that struggle with less-experienced and less-skilled teachers, fewer resources, and lower-than-average academic outcomes than their white, U.S.-born peers.”

There is no indication that a uniform solution is likely in the near future. Several border states are currently dealing with at least one lawsuit over ELL courses, and across the United States more lawsuits are popping up regularly. As recently as July 2017, for example, a Thai student sued St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, alleging that he had been placed in regular high school courses despite being able to read at only a second-grade level.


Toward a Culturally Responsive Solution

Nearly 75 years after Soledad Vidaurri and Gonzalo Mendez attempted to enroll their children in school, questions about language segregation remain unresolved. The legal battles, however, have made one thing clear: The courts might be able to determine the minimum threshold for services, but they are not the most effective system for establishing best practices.

Culturally responsive educators who work with English language learners have long held that, while these young people need differentiation, they also need to learn alongside their peers. The Teaching Tolerance publication Best Practices for Serving English Language Learners and Their Families offers the following suggestions for how to balance social inclusion with robust language learning opportunities:

Limit pull-out instruction time. Pulling ELLs out of class for separate instruction limits contact time with peers. Students who spend a significant amount of time outside of the classroom are put at a disadvantage for forming new friendships and learning new skills. 

Level the playing field. Provide leveled reading material in a student’s native language, and be sure to give ELLs the same curriculum that everyone else is using. English language learners may need additional scaffolding or alternative texts, but everyone should be given access to the same essential questions, learning targets and enduring understandings.

Make the curriculum relevant. Embed stories, readings and perspectives that focus on history, immigration and community into the units you teach. This will create opportunities to bring personal stories to the classroom. Including these perspectives shows students how their lives can also be read as a part of a larger American story of the history of shifting borders and movements of people.

Use a variety of teaching modalities. Movement, call-and-response, claps, stomps, chants and cheers are all ways to get—and keep—the attention of students who may not understand every word. These approaches also offer opportunities to make memorable connections to the curriculum.

The same solution may not work for every school or for every ELL population, but equitable solutions are possible. Through research, ingenuity and conversations with students and families, the equal educational opportunities Soledad Vidaurri and Gonzalo Mendez once sought for their children can one day become a reality.

Moon is an award-winning columnist and investigative reporter working in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Importance of Teaching Mendez

Mendez v. Westminster has gone largely unrecognized in history instruction. If it is mentioned at all, the case is often tagged as a precursor to the civil rights movement or as the Mexican-American version of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.


“We have a tendency in the U.S., especially in our classrooms, to believe that the country is always moving forward, always improving, always getting better,” Michigan State University Professor Dr. Maribel Santiago says. “That isn’t always the case, as we see with our current climate. Teaching the Mendez case as if it’s the Mexican-American version of Brown fits that narrative nicely. It makes people feel good. It’s easy to understand. But it is not accurate.”


Santiago is on a mission to do two things:


1) Get the Mendez case into the lesson plans of history teachers, and


2) make sure the case is taught properly, with all of the nuance left in.


The Mendez case definitely has nuance to spare. In addition to the court unintentionally endorsing the legality of language-based segregation, the plaintiffs’ lawyers appealed to laws that, at the time, classified Mexican-American students as white people. In other words, a case that is often characterized as a blow against racial segregation is actually an example of a case that staked its success on a claim of what we now call white privilege.


The details of the case, Santiago believes, can draw in Mexican-American and other Latinx students.


In her paper “Erasing Difference for the Sake of Inclusion: How Mexican/Mexican Americans Construct Historical Narratives,” Santiago encourages teaching more specific lessons about Mexican-American history and including the nuanced account of those events as a way to increase relevance and spark engagement.


Santiago’s goal is to provide teachers with lessons that dig into the complexities of the Mendez case.


“This has to start with the teachers, because otherwise it’s up to state legislatures and state laws, and that ship just moves too slowly,” she says. “Even in California, a state with a large Latinx population, it took nearly 20 years to change the curriculum. We have to stress this to teachers, to impress upon them the importance of this history.”

Students and a teacher, with a blue tint overlay and the Teaching Tolerance Toolkit watermark

Check out this toolkit for suggestions on bringing the Mendez case into your classroom.

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