Local Teen Documents Mexican-American History, Desegregation

Jul 10, 2020

Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez sued the California Westminster school district for segregating their children in "schools for Mexicans."
Credit Natalia Lopez

The Mendez v. Westminster case is not well known in U.S. history, but it laid the framework to ending legal school segregation in the United States. Northern Utah student Natalia Lopez recently made a documentary on the legal case to highlight its importance, “Mendez V. Westminster: Breaking Barriers.”

Natalia Lopez made the documentary her freshman year at Green Canyon High School for the National History Day competition. She won both the regional and national rounds. The documentary was then showcased at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. She said her parents always taught her about her heritage as a Latina and the history of inequality in the US. 

“There has always been a fight for equal rights for people like me,” Lopez said, “And it taught me that here are people who have gone forth and fought for equal rights. And I think that’s important.”

For the film, Lopez interviewed Sylvia Mendez, who, as a Mexican-American girl in the 1940s, was denied the right to attend the white Westminster school close to her Californian home, and was told she must attend the segregated “Mexican” school.

 

Her parents teamed up with other Mexican-American parents to successfully sue California school districts that forced their children into segregated schools. The ruling that the school districts were infringing on the students’ rights to an equal education laid the groundwork for Brown v.Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in the U.S.

USU Sociology professor Marisela Martinez-Cola was interviewed for the documentary. “Throughout the trial, they are referred to as mentally inferior, dirt, lice-ridden,” Martinez-Cola said about the Mexican-American children at the center of the case. “There were teachers who wouldn’t hug, they would hug their white students, but they would never hug their Mexican students.”

Lopez’s father, Crescencio López González, teaches LatinX studies at USU. 

“The Latino culture and history is absent from the history books that are being taught around the country,” López González said. “Natalia’s topic is rarely taught.”

“A lot of Latinx history is not taught a lot in schools unless you’re really looking for it,” Natalia Lopez added. “Actually it wasn’t until recently that the topic of Mendez v. Westminster was to be added to textbooks in California.”