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Museum of Teaching and Learning Exhibit

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A Class Action: the Grassroots Struggle for School Desegregation​

Please use the following text to take a self-guided tour of the exhibit

Part 1: Orange County before World War II

This section depicts the lifestyle of Mexican Americans in the 1930s and 40s.  Men worked in the fields picking oranges; women worked inside packing and sorting the fruit. The average Mexican American family earned about half of the average annual income (which, at that time, was about $1700).  So, the combined annual income for the average Mexican American home was about $600-$800. They could not secure better paying jobs because employers refused to hire them.  The education they received prepared them for one job and one job only: picking crops.

Part 2: An American Community

Because of their average annual income per household, Mexican American families lived in very poor housing. Often there was no indoor plumbing, no electric stoves, or washing machines. As a community, however, they were very tight-knit; they celebrated life through festivals, weddings, birthdays, and religious events. The plaintiffs in the Mendez et al case: Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, Frank and Irene Palomino, Thomas and Mary Louise Estrada, William and Virginia Guzman, and Lorenzo and Josefina Ramirez became acquainted through a network of common friends.

Part 3: Lessons in Inequality

During this period of time, segregation was widespread.  At the local theatre, Mexicans could sit only in the balcony.  At restaurants, they could sit only in certain areas.  They drank from separate drinking fountains, were allowed to swim at the public pools only one day of the week, the day before the pool was cleaned, and attended so-called “Mexican “Schools".  In these schools, the students were discouraged from speaking their own language.  They had to show that their hands were clean before entering the classroom.  The students were given 'hand me down' school supplies and their teachers were paid less than their counterparts in the American schools. Because it was felt that these students were capable of only manual labor or housework, the curriculum in the Mexican schools was minimal. The parents of these students realized that their children were not being prepared for higher education.  Therefore dreams of becoming a teacher, lawyer, or doctor were not attainable.

Part 4: Mendez et al v. Westminster et al School District

The parents of the child plaintiffs decided to take legal action in the 1940s. This action was not without challenges as the parents felt it necessary to meet secretly and in various locations to avoid retaliation from the school district. At trial, plaintiffs focused on the effects of segregation and the opportunities from which the students were excluded. Marie Hughes stated: “Segregation, by its very nature, is a reminder constantly of inferiority, of not being wanted, of not being a part of the community.  Such an experience cannot possibly build the best personality or the sort of person who is most at home in the world, and able to contribute and live well." The defendants explained that Mexican students were best suited for the Mexican schools so that they could be Americanized and trained to be productive members of the community.  James Kent stated: “Mexican children have to be Americanized much more than our so-called American children.  They must be taught manners.  They must be taught cleanliness, and they must be taught manners, which ordinarily do not come out of the home."

The trial judge ruled for the Plaintiffs, and the court of appeals agreed. 

Part 5: An Unfinished Legacy

California became the first state to desegregate the public schools, pursuant to a bill signed into law by then Governor Earl Warren.  Much later, Earl Warren went on to pen the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education which was argued by Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall who as a lawyer had closely watched the Mendez et al v. Westminster et al case.