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In 1945 Gonzalo and Felícitas Méndez, California farmers, sent their children off to the local school, only to be told that the students would have to attend a separate facility reserved for Mexican Americans. The Méndezes and other similarly aggrieved parents went to federal court to challenge the segregation. Uniquely, they did not claim racial discrimination, since Mexicans were legally considered white, but rather discrimination based on ancestry and supposed “language deficiency” that denied their children their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
Federal district court judge Paul McCormick came to support the plaintiffs on the grounds that the social, psychological, and pedagogical costs of segregated education were damaging to Mexican-American children. The school districts claimed that federal courts had no jurisdiction over education, but the Ninth Circuit upheld McCormick's decision, ruling that the schools' actions violated California law. Finally giving Mendez its due, Philippa Strum provides a concise, compelling, and balanced account of its legal issues and legacy, while retaining its essential human face: Mexican Americans unwilling to accept second-class citizenship.
Editors' Preface ix
1 Mexican-Americans in California 4
2 From Lemon Grove to the Zoot Suit Riots 22
3 The Parents Decide to Sue 55
4 Race, Ethnicity, and Trial Strategies 54
5 The Trial Begins 7
6 “We Always Tell Our Children They Are Americans” 98
7 The Experts Testify 111
8 Judge McCormick Decides 123
9 From the Court of Appeals to the State Legislature 141
Cases Cited 165
Bibliographical Essay 171