When Family History Overlaps With U.S. History

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Sandra Mendez Duran with Sylvia Mendez i

Sandra Mendez Duran (right) with her sister, Sylvia Mendez, spoke in Walnut, Calif. Their conversation is part of StoryCorps Historias. StoryCorps hide caption

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Sandra Mendez Duran with Sylvia Mendez

Sandra Mendez Duran (right) with her sister, Sylvia Mendez, spoke in Walnut, Calif. Their conversation is part of StoryCorps Historias.


Gonzalo Mendez wanted his children to be able to attend the same schools as white children in Orange County, Calif. So in 1945, the Mendez family and four others filed a lawsuit against Westminster School District.

The case — argued by attorneys that included, on appeal, Thurgood Marshall — paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of the 1950s. But for years, the Mendez family barely spoke of their victory.

Recently, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez's daughters — Sylvia Mendez and Sandra Mendez Duran — spoke about the case, and how it has affected their lives.

"I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice," Sylvia said with a laugh. "And we'd be there sitting very quietly, not really understanding what was going on."

But when the family won the case — and she started going to a new school — Sylvia gained a vivid understanding of what her parents had been fighting for.

"I go to school, and the school bell rings, and we go out to play," Sylvia said, "and this little white boy comes up, and he says, 'What are you doing here? You don't belong in this school. They shouldn't have Mexicans here.' "

Sylvia started to cry. And that night, she told her mother, "I don't want to be in that school."

As Sylvia recalls it, her mother said, "Don't you realize that this is what we fought for? Of course you're going to stay in that school and prove that you're just as good as he is."

The segregation case was filed before Sandra Mendez was born. After it was over, the family didn't talk about it much — Sandra didn't learn about the case until she was in college.

"I happened to be assigned a book called North from Mexico," Sandra said. "I just opened the book and I saw 'Mendez.' And when I read my dad's name, Gonzalo Mendez, I knew it couldn't be a coincidence."

Reading about the case, the story amazed Sandra.

"And I called my mother, and I said, 'I'm reading this book, and it's talking about this case, and it's got Sylvia's name in it,' " she said.

"Oh yeah, that was us," her mother answered. "We did that."

When Sandra asked why she'd never heard about her family winning a landmark federal case, her mother said that she and Gonzalo didn't want to seem like they were bragging.

"Here I was, a piece of history, and just discovering this story," Sandra said. "It was like discovering gold."

Produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo. This conversation is part of the StoryCorps Historias project.



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