Felicitas Mendez was born Felicitas Gomez in Juncos, Puerto Rico. The Gomez family moved to Arizona, they faced, and were subject to the discrimination which was then-rampant throughout the United States. Mendez and her siblings were racialized as “black”. When she was 12 years old, the family moved to Southern California to work the fields – where they were racialized as “Mexican”.
In 1936, she married Gonzalo Mendez, an immigrant from Mexico who had become a naturalized citizen of the United States. They had three children and moved from Santa Ana to Westminster. In the early 1940s, there were only two schools in Westminster: Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary. Orange County schools were segregated and the Westminster school district was no exception. The district mandated separate campuses for Hispanics and Whites. Mendez’s three children Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr. and Jerome Mendez, attended Hoover Elementary, a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city’s Mexican neighborhood, along with the other Hispanics. 17th Street Elementary, which was a “Whites-only” segregated school, was located about a mile away. Unlike Hoover, the 17th Street Elementary school was amongst a row of palm and pine trees and had a lawn lining the school’s brick and concrete facade.
Realizing that the 17th Street Elementary school provided better books and educational benefits, Mendez and her husband Gonzalo, decided that they would like to have their children and nephews enrolled in there. Thus, in 1943, when her daughter Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old, she accompanied her aunt Sally Vidaurri, her brothers and cousins to enroll at the 17th Street Elementary School. Her aunt was told by school officials that her children, who had light skin, would be permitted to enroll – but that neither Sylvia Mendez nor her brothers would be allowed because they were dark-skinned and had a Hispanic surname. Mrs. Vidaurri stormed out of the school with her children, niece and nephews, and recounted her experience to her brother Gonzalo and her sister-in-law Felicitas Mendez.
With the support of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mendezes filed a class action suit in federal court against segregated schools in Orange County. The school district countered the Mendez case by arguing that Mexican American children were inferior to Anglo American children, carried contagious diseases, and were limited by their “language deficiency.” However, their claim fell apart when one of the children was asked to testify during the trial itself, Mendez’s attorney David Marcus had Sylvia Mendez testify on how it felt to be rejected by the “white” 17th Street School and assigned to an inferior one. She testified in a highly articulate English – thus demonstrating that there was no “language issue,” because most of the Hispanic-American children spoke English and had the same capacity for learning as their white counterparts.
Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and appellate courts upheld his decision. The success of the Mendez v. Westminster case made California the first state in the nation to end segregation in school and paved the way for the better-known Brown v. Board of Education seven years later, which would bring an end to school segregation in the entire country.
Despite her contributions, Felicitas Mendez “didn’t like the word activist. She liked to be called a pioneer,” her daughter said. “Whatever she wanted, she went after and she got. This was all through her life. She was not a passive person whom you could step over.”
In 1998, the district of Santa Ana honored the family by naming a new school the ‘Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School’ and on September 9, 2009, a second school opened in the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights bearing the name ‘Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center’. On April 14, 2007, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp commemorating the Mendez v. Westminster case.
On Sunday, April 12, 1998, Felicitas Mendez died of heart failure at her daughter’s home in Fullerton, California. She was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California. She is survived by four sons: Victor, Gonzalo, Jerome and Phillip; two daughters, Silvia Mendez and Sandra Duran; 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
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