A prominent Latina civil rights figure will soon receive the U.S.’ highest civilian honor.
Yesterday President Barack Obama named Sylvia Mendez as one of the fifteen honorees to receive the Medal of Freedom in early 2011. The award will be given to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to a White House statement.
Mendez, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, is best known for a vital court case that began the process of desegregating schools. In 1943 an eight-year-old Mendez was barred from enrolling in an Orange County, California public elementary school for “whites” due to her dark skin and racial background. Her parents joined with other Latino parents and subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the school district. Mendez reportedly testified and “showed that Hispanic-American students had the same capacity for learning as their white counterparts.” A federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and in 1947 then-governor Earl Warren ordered all Californian schools to halt racial segregation.
The verdict in the Mendez v. Westminster case came seven years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools. The unanimous decision by the high court (including Chief Justice Earl Warren) may not have been reached without the breakthrough decision involving Sylvia Mendez.
The following video excerpt comes from a 2002 documentary that examined the immediate and long-term repercussions of impact the Mendez v. Westminster case:
Since the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown case in 2004, the Mendez decision has received renewed attention. Sylvia Mendez is a retired nurse and mother of two who travels and lectures on the importance of getting a solid education. In 2007 a stamp was dedicated in her name while in 2009 a school in the Los Angeles neighborhood was named after her parents, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez.
Ex-President George H.W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou and baseball legend Stan Musial were also named as the next Medal of Freedom recipients.
Dancer/actress Chita Rivera and Dr. Pedro Jose Greer received the medal in August 2009 and other Latinos who previously received the prestigious honor included Roberto Clemente and Cesar Chavez. Not every recipient is universally praised, as was the case (in our opinion) with then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Video Source - YouTube
Online Sources- White House, Poder 360, UPI, Wikipedia, In Motion Magazine, USA TODAY, The Latin Americanist