En la Clase: Mendez vs. Westminster~Separate is not Equal

mendez-v-westminster-stampEarlier in the semester we highlighted a series of early education lesson plans that focused on teaching about diversity, race, difference and acceptance.  Today’s En la Clase highlights a middle/high school unit plan that discusses many of the same things.  The unit plan “Mendez vs. Westminster: Separate is not Equal” was written by Megan Cox, a pre-service teacher in UNM’s Teacher Education Program. As Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15th, I thought this was the perfect time to share Cox’s unit here on Vamos a Leer.  Mendez vs. Westminster preceded Brown vs. the Board of Education.  While not as well known as Brown, it was an important case and many have said it laid a great deal of the groundwork for Brown.  The following taken from Teaching Tolerance offers some background on the case: 

“In the early 1900s, Mexican Americans, or Chicanos, in California and the Southwest were excluded from “Whites Only” theaters, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, and even schools. Immigrants from Mexico waged many battles against such discriminatory treatment, often risking their jobs in fields and factories and enduring threats of deportation. In 1945, one couple in California won a significant victory in their struggle to secure the best education for thousands of Chicano children.

In the fall of 1944, Soledad Vidaurri took her children and those of her brother, Gonzalo Méndez, to enroll at the 17th Street School in Westminster, Calif. Although they were cousins and shared a Mexican heritage, the Méndez and Vidaurri children looked quite different: Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr. and Geronimo Méndez had dark skin, hair and eyes, while Alice and Virginia Vidaurri had fair complexions and features.

An administrator looked the five children over. Alice and Virginia could stay, he said. But their dark-skinned cousins would have to register at the Hoover School, the town’s “Mexican school” located a few blocks away. Furious at such blatant discrimination, Vidaurri returned home without registering any of the children in either school.

The Méndezes hired a civil rights attorney, David Marcus, who had recently won a lawsuit on behalf of Mexican Americans in nearby San Bernardino seeking to integrate the public parks and pools. The Méndezes also learned parents in other school districts were fighting segregation too. Marcus suggested they join forces, and on March 2, 1945, the Méndezes and four other Mexican American families filed a class action suit against the Westminster, Garden Grove, El Modena and Santa Ana boards of education on behalf of 5,000 Mexican American children attending segregated, inferior schools.”

Cox’s unit covers a variety of literacy skills, including reading, writing, and researching, while asking students to think critically and craft persuasive arguments.  The lesson culminates in a class debate in which students must take on the personas of the people or groups involved in the court case.  Cox’s reflection on writing her lesson plans communicates why teaching about historical subjects like this case are so important for our students today.  She writes,

“[I found myself asking]. . .Where was the message of hope? What would motivate my students to do something? Finding the PBS video on the Mendez vs. Westminster case was a God send. Not only was it perfect because it addressed issues of segregation in schools; exactly where my students and I are located for eight hours out of the day. It was also perfect because it looked at issues of Mexican and Latin American social justice. In a state where as much as 90% of the student population can be Hispanic, this 68 year old case was still incredibly relevant. And finally, it offered a message of hope. Sylvia Mendez and her family won, and Sylvia was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2010. This was a person who was still alive, available to offer my students a message of hope.

Creating the lesson plan was a little more difficult than I hoped. I didn’t want this case to becoming boring, and static, something they could just write about in their history notebooks and throw away, or place on the back of a 3×5 card and forget about after the test. In their articles “Columbus and Native Issues in the Classroom,” and “Testing, Tracking and Toeing the Line” Bob Peterson, and Bill Bigelow suggests holding a class trial assigning students various historic roles. This seemed like a perfect idea to make the case relevant to my students. It would give them the chance to insert themselves into history. And, as the students researched each role to prepare, they would be forced to look at the thought process, beliefs, and opinions, of each persona, helping the students to understand them, even if they didn’t agree with them.”

While many have persuasively argued that cases like Mendez vs. Westminster or Brown vs. Board of Education have not accomplished all that we had hoped or even like to believe they have, they’re still significant historical events that our students should be learning about.  Who better to analyze how far cases like this have brought us than those actually still in the classroom?

Check out the pdf of Cox’s complete unit here (correlated to appropriate Common Core Standards).

Feel free to share any of your own ideas or comments below. We’d love to hear them!


6 thoughts on “En la Clase: Mendez vs. Westminster~Separate is not Equal

  1. This sounds like a great lesson plan! I love how it emphasizes the importance of our courts in protecting our civil rights (sadly, these days, our courts are more often responsible for dismantling them!). I remember reading an interesting law review article by Saenz of MALDEF on why Mendez didn’t become Brown in terms of significance (part of the reason had to do with a very odd stipulation that the case wasn’t really about race segregation!), but it was most definitely an important case.

    • I agree, I think Megan did a great job creating this lesson plan. I’m going to have to look up the article you mention, it sounds really interesting. If I can’t find it or access it, I’m hoping Adam or Neoshia (our other blog writers) might be able to help. They’re both in our dual degree Latin American Studies/Law Program. To say that Mendez wasn’t about race amazes me. . .

  2. Thanks for all the positive support! I’m pretty sure you can type Westminster vs. Suarez into Google’s search engine and the case will pop up. If all else fails PBS has always been there for me.

    • Hi Megan! Thanks for the information. So good to hear from you. I hope you’re enjoying your summer! Are you teaching next year? Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help or support you!

  3. Pingback: ¡Mira, Look!: Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation | Vamos a Leer

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