This year marks the 70th anniversary of Mendez v. Westminster, one of the first court decisions to end Mexican American school segregation. In this blog post, Dr. Maribel Santiago considers how Mendez is an effective case study to utilize in teacher preparation courses.
Helping Pre-Service Teachers Understand the Complexity of Latina/o Identity and Discrimination
The Mendez segregation challenge began in 1945 when the family moved to Westminster, California. The family tried to enroll their children at their local elementary school, but they were denied admission. The school told the Mendez children to register at the “Mexican school.” However, their lighter-skinned cousins who “looked White” could enroll in the school. What followed was a year long court battle against five Orange County school districts that would eventually strike down Mexican American segregation.
Mendez offers an opportunity for educators responsible for preparing future teachers to discuss how discrimination was enacted against Mexican Americans. It also lets us reframe our conversations on race/ethnicity and consider how it intersects with language. The need to engage teachers and teacher educators in conversations around race/ethnicity in complex ways has become increasingly important given the recent demographic changes.
A quarter of the children’s population in the U.S. is Latina/o. In the past 10 years the number of Latina/o children has doubled in states that we do not usually associate with Latinas/os, particularly in the South and Midwest. More and more teachers in states, such as Georgia and Alabama, are confronted with a new reality in which they must be prepared to teach Latina/o children. Part of that preparation requires a better understanding of their students’ history. That history includes an analysis of how race/ethnicity intersects with language to discriminate against Mexican Americans, and Latina/os in general.
Mendez epitomizes the complexity of these discriminatory practices. For example, the courts legally considered Mexican Americans as racially White. Therefore, they could not be segregated from other White children and had the right to attend White schools. But in doing so, the courts left existing school segregation policies against Asian Americans and Native Americans in tact. Furthermore, Mendez upheld language segregation. Only Mexican American students who were “English proficient” could enroll in the White school, a loophole that Orange County school district administrators exploited. State officials would eventually end all racial/ethnic school segregation in 1947.
The segregation challenge, and subsequent court decisions, offers key lessons that can be discussed in teacher preparation classrooms. We often teach about the social construction of race and its intersection with ethnicity in ways that may be too theoretical. But Mendez can help make concrete what, at times, seems abstract. I suggest five historical points that teacher educators can use in their classroom as an entrée for discussing the complex and unique nature of Mexican American discrimination.
First, Mendez helps pre-service teachers acknowledge that Mexican American segregation existed, not only in California, but also throughout the Southwest. Every time I teach about the case, students often tell me that they’re amazed to learn that Mexican Americans were segregated. This often leads to questions about who else was segregated and why. For example, the way in which Chinese American students were segregated in San Francisco functioned differently than the way Black students were segregated in Boston. Students of color were segregated in various ways depending on their region and its population. These questions are important to consider as they encourage pre-service teachers to go beyond the Black-White binary that dominates the racial discourse in the U.S.
Second, Mendez exposes the diversity within intra-racial/ethnic groups. Mexican Americans are not one monolithic racial group. As mestizos, Mexicans are, to various degrees, a combination of Black, Indigenous, and Spanish ancestry. Thus, Mexican Americans of all skin colors exist. They can be as dark-skinned as the Mendez children or as light-skinned as their cousins. After all, the entire Mendez lawsuit comes to be because Brown Mexican American children were denied access while White Mexican Americans were allowed to enroll at the school.
This leads us to our third lesson, Mexican Americans, like many light-skinned Latina/os, benefit from their racial whiteness. Light-skinned Latina/os experience less discrimination in the work place and schools than their darker-skinned counterparts. Thus, they too can benefit from White privilege. It is important to recognize how educators, including teachers of color, may privilege and preference light-skinned students over dark-skinned students.
Related, many of the stereotypes and arguments used to segregate Mexican Americans continue to exist today, many of which our pre-service teachers need to acknowledge they carry themselves. For example, not all Latina/os are immigrants. The Mendez children weren’t. Their Puerto Rican mother was, but she was also a citizen. Which takes us to our next point. Not all Latinas/os have the same relationship with immigration. Why Salvadoran children come to the U.S. is not the same reason nor in the same way that Cubans come to the U.S. Moreover, not all immigrants are undocumented, and many have become citizens. We must be aware of these differences to not paint all Latinas/os with the same brush.
Lastly, Mendez highlights how racial/ethnic discrimination practices against Latinas/os have often relied on circumscribing the law. In particular, the racialization of language—how Spanish is a marker of Mexican American/Latina/o identity—was vital to perpetuating discrimination in seemingly benign ways. School district officials believed Mexican Americans did not speak English and that language segregation was in the best interest of both them and White students. Although, this was merely an excuse to segregate Mexican Americans, it exposes administrators’ language ideologies about Spanish. Not only was Spanish not valued, assuming that Mexican American students could not speak English was rooted in notions of racial/ethnic inferiority. Current conversations about English instruction haven’t changed much in this regard. Under the guise of what educators believe is “best” for English Language students is often coded language about Spanish, bilingualism, and Latinas/os. For instance, the “language gap,” or the assumption that Latina/os or Spanish speakers know fewer words than monolingual or White students, is an extension from the idea that Mexican Americans couldn’t speak English. The language might be more polished and now “based” on research, but the underlying deficit ideas about Latina/os are the same. It is pivotal that we encourage pre-service educators to identify and challenge when people try to mask such discriminatory practices.
Educators will be expected to teach in increasingly diverse classrooms. We must prepare teachers for this new reality. Doing so requires that teacher educators bring a historical context to how race/ethnicity intersects with language, and how together they play a role in how we judge and mislabel Latina/o students.
Maribel Santiago is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of History. Dr. Santiago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chapter three offers some of the most insightful and detailed information regarding not only the case, but also how race/ethnicity, and language functioned against Mexican Americans in southern California.
This interview with Sandra Robbie, director of the Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children documentary, offers a quick history of the case, including photos of the Mendez children.
The abbreviated version (about 8-minutes) of the documentary includes rarely seen photographs, and an interview with Sylvia Mendez.
To purchase the Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children documentary contact Sandra Robbie through her OC Peace Ride website. The site also include additional Mendez resources.