Students from Lincoln Elementary School for “Mexican” children in Orange County, California, 1930s. Courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Students from Lincoln Elementary School for “Mexican” children in Orange County, California, 1930s. Courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

As a college student, Shereen Marisol Meraji learned about the roles of Latinos in American history, but there was one historic court case she missed: Mendez v. Westminster School District, a lesser-known education segregation case that preceded the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education by seven years.
Shereen Marisol Meraji

Shereen Marisol Meraji

Shereen Marisol Meraji

“I was shocked,” said Meraji, a California-based reporter for NPR’s Code Switch, a national blog on race, ethnicity and culture. “I had never heard of it in all my life. Not in elementary school, not in high school, not in college.”

Like Meraji, journalists nationwide unearthed little-known cases to illustrate the impact the historic Brown v. Board case, which ended segregation in public schools, had since it passed 60 years before.

Many found a mixed legacy where progress was followed by a slow resegregation of schools over the decades.

To highlight what she found, Meraji focused on the Mendez v. Westminster to guide her story.

“In California, Latinos were fighting segregation at the same time as African-Americans in the South. It’s not a story that is told. This is not something we learn in schools.” -Shereen Marisol Meraji

“We [Latinos] don’t get represented in the civil rights movement the same way that African-Americans do,” said Meraji, who is Latina and Iranian. “We’re not reported on as much.”

UNITY Reporting fellow Melanie Balakit is covering the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association in summer 2014.

UNITY Reporting fellow Melanie Balakit is covering the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association in summer 2014.

Meraji connected the historic Mendez case with segregation in today’s schools by interviewing Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the couple who started the case. Mendez was 9 at the time of the case.

In the interview, Mendez said she witnessed resegregation occur over the decades. One of the two schools in Southern California named after her parents resides in the Orange County school district. Not unlike the demographics in the 1940s, 98 percent of students are Latino. Additionally, 92 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the article. The other school is also predominantly Latino.

Mendez’s anecdote is supported by recent data. Just days before the Brown v. Board anniversary, a civil rights group released a report analyzing the legacy of the case. The report by the Civil Rights Project of University of California, Los Angeles found black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children. Additionally, Latinos are significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.

Meraji said she was surprised by what she learned from the Mendez case and its absence in most history classes.

“In California, Latinos were fighting segregation at the same time as African-Americans in the South,” Meraji said. “It’s not a story that is told. This is not something we learn in schools.”

“We [Latinos] don’t get represented in the civil rights movement the same way that African-Americans do,” said Meraji, who is Latina and Iranian. “We’re not reported on as much.”

Meraji connected the historic Mendez case with segregation in today’s schools by interviewing Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the couple who started the case. Mendez was 9 at the time of the case.

In the interview, Mendez said she witnessed resegregation occur over the decades. One of the two schools in Southern California named after her parents resides in the Orange County school district. Not unlike the demographics in the 1940s, 98 percent of students are Latino. Additionally, 92 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the article. The other school is also predominantly Latino.

Mendez’s anecdote is supported by recent data. Just days before the Brown v. Board anniversary, a civil rights group released a report analyzing the legacy of the case. The report by the Civil Rights Project of University of California, Los Angeles found black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children. Additionally, Latinos are significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.

Meraji said she was surprised by what she learned from the Mendez case and its absence in most history classes.

“In California, Latinos were fighting segregation at the same time as African-Americans in the South,” Meraji said. “It’s not a story that is told. This is not something we learn in schools.”

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