In light of Black History Month, with a film like Selma in theaters and massive protests against racial profiling occurring across the country, we here at Vamos feel it is a good time for educators to have their students reflect upon civil rights achievements of the past in order to take lessons learned from the successes and apply them to ongoing struggles of today.
Many of you, I’m sure, have heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation of public schools. What you may not know is that seven years before a case involving the segregation of Mexican-American students in California laid the groundwork for that significant decision. The case, Mendez v. Westminster, is brought back to life through the story and illustrations of Duncan Tonatiuh in his children’s book Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. And we cannot recommend it highly enough.
If our applause isn’t loud enough, then we’ll let others convince you. Just recently, the book was recognized as a 2015 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book and as a Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Award for Younger Readers.
Here is an excerpt from Kirkus:
Most associate the fight for school integration with the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. However, seven years earlier, Mexican-American students in California saw an end to discrimination there. The little girl at the center of that case, Sylvia Mendez, was the daughter of parents who looked forward to sending her to the school near their newly leased farm. When her aunt attempted to register the family children, they were directed to the “Mexican school,” despite proficiency in English and citizenship. No one could explain to Mr. Mendez why his children were not allowed to attend the better-appointed school nearby. Despite the reluctance of many fellow Mexican-Americans to cause “problems,” he filed a suit, receiving the support of numerous civil rights organizations. Tonatiuh masterfully combines text and folk-inspired art to add an important piece to the mosaic of U.S. civil rights history.
The story takes place over the period of three years. It begins with Sylvia being bullied on her first day as an integrated student and shoots back in time to tell the story of how hard her family fought to get her to that point. The story invaluably outlines the legal process of civil rights cases, taking us through each step that the Mendez family went through, even including trial scene dialogue taken directly from court transcripts.
Tonatiuh’s award winning artistic skills do not disappoint. The colorfully rich illustrations appeal to young readers and they bring to life the visual impact of segregation. Using a multi-media approach, Tonatiuh notes that the illustrations were hand-drawn, collaged, and then colored digitally.
Tonatiuh’s note at the end of the book includes follow-up biographical information and photos of the Mendez family. The author also uses this space to talk about the ongoing relevance of the issue of segregation throughout schools across the country in modern day. The book is a great educational tool as it includes an index, glossary, and bibliography with information about other good resources related to the case.
When learning about the history of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, many Latino students across classrooms do not often hear about advances made by Mexican-Americans such as the Mendez family. It is important that stories such as Sylvia’s be told in order for ethnically diverse students to be able to imagine that they can stand up for equity, invoke change, and make positive contributions to society. This is why this book makes such a great addition to any classroom, home, or library.
In a recent article on NBC, Tonatiuh talks about the importance his work has for young children, and why it’s so critical for Latin@ readers to see themselves in the books they read: Duncan Tonatiuh Wants Latino Children to See Themselves in Books.
To learn more about the court case that inspired the book, check out some of the following resources:
- Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary “Mendez vs Westminster: For All The Children/Para Todos Los Niños”
- An NPR article about Sylvia Mendez and her family’s case: “Before ‘Brown V. Board,’ Mendez Fought California’s Segregated Schools”
- Our Vamos a Leer En la Clase post (with lesson plan) on the Mendez vs. Westminster case.
- A lesson plan about the case created by Megan Cox. It includes activities for teaching about Equal Rights, Segregation, Personal Writing and Persuasive Writing.
- A classroom guide for the book presented by the Education Division of the Anti-Defamation League. It includes discussion questions, extension activities, and links to other resources.
Finally, if you would like to learn more about the author, including his other books and awards, visit his website.
Images: Modified from illustrations, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Illustrator: Duncan Tonatiuh