RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Time again for StoryCorps. Today, we hear from Sylvia Mendez and her sister Sandra. Sixty-five years ago this month their family joined four others in a lawsuit against Orange County, California, because their Mexican-American children were not allowed to attend white schools. The case, Mendez vs. Westminster, helped set the stage for Brown vs. Board of Education.
It wasn't something that the Mendez family discussed much. Sandra was born after the case went to court; Sylvia was eight years old.
Ms. SYLVIA MENDEZ: I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice and we'd be there, sitting very quietly - not really understanding what was going on. And it wasn't until I was 10 years old that I really discovered what they were fighting. And I remember this so vividly.
I go to school, and the school bell rings, and we go out to play, 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. And I started crying 'cause I always been that way.
So, I go home, I tell my mother, I don't want to be in that school. Then she says, 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.
When did you first learn of the suit?
Ms. SANDRA MENDEZ: I was in college and I happened to be assigned a book called "North from Mexico." Studying, 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. And then I started reading the story and I'm awed by it.
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. And mom said, oh yeah, that was us. We did that. When I asked why didn't you tell me? She said that nobody wanted to hear about it. People would accuse them of bragging, so they decided not to talk about it.
And I took the book to the professor, and I said this is my mom and dad. And I so wanted him to be excited, and he looked at me and said, oh really? That was it. Here he was a Chicano Studies professor, and he didn't care about it. But to me it was something amazing. Here I was a piece of history, and just discovering this story. It was like discovering gold.
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MONTAGNE: Sandra Mendez Duran with Sylvia Mendez at StoryCorps on Walnut, California.
Their conversation is part of StoryCorps Historias, recording the voices of Latinos. It will be archived at the Library of Congress. Sign up for the Podcast at NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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