Felicitas Mendez (or Felicitas Gomez Martinez at the time) was born on February 5, 1916 in Juncos, Puerto Rico. She moved to mainland US as a preteen, where Mendez and her siblings were discriminated against because they were racialized as black. Later, when she was 12, she moved to South California where her parents worked as agricultural workers. Still, Mendez suffered the same discrimination and was again racialized, but this time as “Mexican.”
In 1936, Mendez married Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant who also worked with her father. In Santa Ana, they opened a successful bar and grill called “La Prieta”. Later, she moved from Santa Ana to Westminster with her husband and three children. In Westminster, they managed to sustain a small asparagus farm. Even though the farm was a success, discrimination against Hispanics was still widespread through the United States.
In the 1940s, there were only two schools in Westminster: Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary. 17th Street Elementary was a grand brick building, lined with palm trees and a lawn. Hoover Elementary paled in comparison, with the school being only a two-room wooden shack smack dab in the middle of a Mexican community. Of course, 17th Street Elementary was the obvious choice for Mendez, as it would be for any parent, but there was one problem: it was segregated, which meant only white children could attend it. (Although we’re all grown up and sixth graders and I think we know what segregated means, but in case you don’t, it means dividing groups or setting one group apart from another.) Still, Mendez wasn’t just going to sit back and watch white children get a better education. She sent her 8 year old daughter, Sylvia Mendez, off with her aunt, Mrs. Vidaurri , Mr. Mendez’ sister, and her children to enroll. At the school, Mrs. Vidaurri was told that her children, who were light skinned, would be accepted, but Sylvia would not. Outraged, Mrs. Vidaurri stormed out of the school and told her brother and Mendez what had happened.
Well, if it was just the husband doing the work, why is this article about Felicitas Mendez and not Gonzalo Mendez? Actually, Mendez had a really important role. In addition to raising the farm on her own, Mendez also organized committees and raised money from her asparagus farm to support the lawsuit. Without Mendez, the whole operation would’ve failed.
The Westminster school board desperately tried to keep the segregation wall up, but all their claims fell apart. She spoke as clearly and smoothly as her white peers, as most of the Mexican children had grown up speaking English.