There were many smiles and warm hearts among children and adults alike on Friday, Sept. 14, as the newly named Sylvia Mendez Elementary School welcomed its namesake for a day of celebrating her legacy and the school’s new name.
“I am so happy!” exclaimed the beaming Ms. Mendez, 82, in an evening program held to honor the education icon and integration advocate.
Following a year-long community collaboration to rename the former Le Conte Elementary, the School Board voted in May to accept the Superintendent’s Naming Committee’s recommendation to name the bilingual English-Spanish school after Sylvia Mendez, in recognition of her role in a landmark school desegregation case.
In 1947, when she was 8 years old and forced to attend an inferior school for children of Mexican ancestry in Orange County, Ms. Mendez was at the center of a lawsuit, Mendez v. Westminster, that led to segregated schools being banned in California, and paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and school desegregation nationwide.
Her father was the lead plaintiff in the case, and after she grew up and worked many years as a pediatric nurse, she devoted her life to telling the story of her family and the legacy of the famous case. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“We are so proud to have you here,” declared school Principal Veronica Valerio at a spirited morning school assembly that included the school song.
Superintendent Donald Evans elicited applause at the evening event when he said that the Mendez lawsuit may have made it possible for him, an African American, become a Superintendent.
In the morning, Sylvia Mendez and her younger sister, Sandra Mendez Duran, answered questions from students in the school library. Many focused on Ms. Mendez’s childhood. The students seemed familiar with the children’s books, Separate But Never Equal: the Story of Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation or Sylvia and Aki.
In response to younger students’ questions about a white boy who told the young Ms. Mendez to go back to Mexico, she answered:
“They didn’t know we’re all welcome here no matter what culture you are, where you come from or what color you are, we’re all welcome here…. That’s what you’re learning in this school – that you have to love everybody and you can’t be mean to people.”
During the evening program, School Board members Beatriz Leyva-Cutler and Ty Alper presented Ms. Mendez with a Board resolution honoring her and celebrating the Mendez School community.
She also was presented with a photo of the assembled students mounted in a large frame with a tribute certificate signed by Principal Valerio in English and Spanish, saying in part:
Thank you for inspiring our community. Your family’s legacy made our school
possible. We are so proud to be named: “Sylvia Mendez Elementary School.”
The next day, Saturday, the Mendez sisters flew back to Southern California, where they make their home.
Previous BUSD news about Sylvia Mendez:
Tonight at Longfellow: Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner Sylvia Mendez
School Board Renames Le Conte Elementary School in Honor of School Integration Icon Sylvia Mendez
Name of School Desegregation Icon Now Adorns BUSD’s Sylvia Mendez School