Park, Monument Will Honor Local Desegregation Heroes in Westminster

October 14, 2020 Updated: October 15, 2020

A touching virtual ceremony for the groundbreaking of a new park to commemorate a 1947 court decision that paved the way for the desegregation of California schools was held in Westminster on Oct. 13.

The city of Westminster and the Orange County Department of Education hosted the online event, which featured an artist’s rendering of the park, which will include a monument to the Mendez family, which fought to open schools to all children in the county.

Representatives from the city and county appeared in a Facebook video prerecorded at the park site at the corner of Westminster Boulevard and Olive Street.

“The case of Mendez v. Westminster impacted us all. Yet most residents have never heard about it,” said Westminster City Councilmember Sergio Contreras in the video.

Mendez v. Westminster was a 1947 federal court decision that allowed Mexican-American parents to send their children to formerly whites-only schools. It was the first case that “introduced evidence in a court that school segregation harmed minority children,” according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

At the time, the Mendez family lived on a farm in Westminster that they leased from a Japanese-American family that was sent to an internment camp during World War II.

Nearby was a whites-only elementary school that rejected the Mendez family’s three children. Instead, they were told to go to a more run-down school for children of Mexican descent—even though the entire Mendez family were legal citizens and spoke fluent English.

The father, Gonzalo Mendez, and four other families hired a civil rights lawyer and sued several school districts in Orange County, arguing that segregated schools harmed the children.

After the families won their case, the school districts appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Mendez and the other families won again.

“This historic court decision paved the way for later rulings that would end school segregation once and for all in our nation,” said Contreras.

Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares said he credits his own life opportunities to the actions of the Mendez family—especially the daughter Sylvia, who has since worked to support the education of all children and raise awareness of her father’s impact.

“Every once in a while, God chooses a person to profoundly impact society, and that person happens to be Sylvia Mendez, who to this day serves as the face of the Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit,” Mijares said.

Sylvia Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2011 for spreading “a message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds.”

In the prerecorded ceremony, she said she hoped the Westminster park and monument would inspire students and other visitors to know that “here in the United States, you can accomplish anything you want.”

“Anybody that wants to fight against evil or something that’s [unjust], people will join you just like they joined my father, Gonzalo, and the other families. And so that monument is going to stand for justice and for education,” she said.

Mijares said the site would be used for educational purposes by school districts throughout the county. It will include bronze statues of children representing the 5,000 students who were impacted by the class action lawsuit, the Mendez parents, and a large open book with the story of the court case, all created by sculptor Ignacio Gomez.

Colorful interpretive panels will line the wall along the park, with augmented reality elements planned for additional virtual learning via smartphone or other devices.

Located one block to the east of the park is the former site of the 17th Street school, where the Mendez children were rejected. Four blocks away was the Hoover School site for children of Mexican heritage.

Just a mile to the west is the Munemitsu farm site, where the Mendez family lived. It’s now the location of another school.

During the ceremony, officials used a shovel from the original Munemitsu farm to break the ground and begin construction of the park.

“I am a second-generation American, my parents were immigrants,” said Jasmine Chhabria, an Orange County student.

“I probably am the living, breathing impact of Mendez v. Westminster. It’s a good feeling to know that where I come from, something big happened.”

The $1.29 million project is funded by a California State Parks grant to the city of Westminster. An additional $2.3 million was gifted by the California Natural Resources Agency to build a Mendez Freedom Trail in the area.

Officials said the city will host a ribbon-cutting event to open the park in 2021.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @dadasarahle