You are Mexican and shouldn’t be here
By Sandra Navarro
When Sylvia Méndez was 8-years-old, the education activist and civil rights advocate for Latinos was at the center of a legal battle, taken on by her parents Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, to end segregation in the public school system in Orange County, California. The Méndez children had been denied admission to a school where only white students were enrolled. At the time, Méndez naively believed her parents fought so she could attend the “pretty school with swings” instead of the school for "Mexicans," where not only the facilities were of poor quality, the books and even the same education was inferior.
Once enrolled in her new school, Méndez remembers a boy saying "you are Mexican, you shouldn’t be here." Faced with such rejection she refused to go to school until her mother explained the battle they fought to get her in. Felicitas Méndez told her daughter, “You don’t know that everything we fought for was because you are equal to these people and he is not better than you!” It was then that the younger Méndez understood her parents’ struggle so she could pursue her studies, do her best, and succeed.
When Méndez took her nursing school exam years later, again she endured discrimination, except she didn’t give up and graduated as a nurse. She eventually became director of nursing and retired after 33 years of service to care for her mother who was ill. During that time, her mother said that many people were unaware of their legal case and she should inform them. For Sylvia and Felicitas, it was important to make others aware that Latino parents have always wanted their children to attain the highest education possible and that the Latino families who fought alongside her parents were pioneers in ending discrimination in California’s schools, even before the renowned Brown vs. Board of Education case that ended school segregation nationwide.
Since 1998, Méndez has given lectures in schools and universities throughout the country on her parents’ legal battles, as well as on the importance of education, encouraging parents to continue supporting their children. “There is no excuse in this country not to continue studying. I tell students to stay in school; that we need more doctors, lawyers and Latino politicians. It is important not to drop out, to pursue a career, and perhaps in the future we might even have a Latino president,” she says with pride.
Méndez adds that segregation and discrimination in schools is still present and education remains a challenge, which is why we must continue fighting. “Among the messages I give Latino students is that they must always be proud of who they are and their origin. Never deny your culture or roots, and once you discover your goals, persevere and do not give up. I know they can make it. Regardless of their nationality or where they come from, what matters is that they set a goal and reach it; they must remain focused and if they want something, they can do it as long as they are honest with themselves and refuse to let anyone intimidate them. As President Roosevelt once said, “There is nothing to fear except fear itself.””
For her work as a civil rights activist and her struggles against discrimination, in February 2011, President Barack Obama granted Méndez the Medal of Freedom, which she received with great honor and humbleness on behalf of her parents.
Have you ever felt discriminated in school or at work? How do you face it? Have you ever felt tempted to leave everything when faced with challenges?