Felicitas Gomez Martnes de Mendez, whose birth name was Felicitas Gomez was born on 5th February, 1916 in Juncos of Puerto Rico. Her name is written in the golden letters in the history of the American civil rights movement. She played a very crucial role in abolishing segregation in the education system of the United States of America. The case which brought them to the page of history books was the Mendez v. Westminster case which reformed the whole education system of California and later also influenced to bring the change in the United States. She was married to Gonzalo Mendez, who also took a major part in her journey. Later she became mother of six children. In her lifetime she always stood up for the oppressed and protested in her own way.
From Puerto Rico, Felicitas Gomez and her family moved to the United States mainland. She was just twelve years old then. She had always been the victim of racism throughout most of her life. They were treated as black. Afterwards they moved to California to work in fields. There they were distinguished and marginalized as Mexican. In the year of 1936, she married Gonzalo Mendez, who was also an immigrant from Mexico but later on he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. They opened a bar and grill together but a few times later they moved to Westminster and leased forty acres of land from a Japanese-American family, who were forced to move into the “Internment camp”, which was basically a kind of detention camp where most of the Japanese-American families were forced to go after the Pearl Harbor attack by Japanese navy during the second world war. Although they were doing great in their farming business venture, they faced much trouble due to their color of skin and identity as there was widespread of racial amusement throughout the United States of America. But at some point she was living a peaceful life with her husband and children.
Schools in Westminster
During the 1940s there were only two schools in Westminster. One was Hoover Elementary and another was 17th Street Elementary. At that time all the Orange county schools were segregated and those were not the exception too. Separate campuses for Hispanics and White people. The schools for Hispanis were not of very good condition at all whereas the schools for White people were providing great education facilities and good infrastructures too.
Gomez faced the truth
Gomez’s three children, Sylvia, Gonzalo jr, Jerome attended Hoover Elementary like other Hispanics. That was a small school with negligible facilities. Which was a two room wooden shack in the Mexican neighborhood.
After listening about the better infrastructures and education qualities of 17th Street Elementary Felicitas Gomez and her husband decided to enroll their children and nephews in the 17th Street Elementary. They went to the school with their aunt but the school authority was not ready to accept Hispanics as their students. They told her that she can enroll her child there because he had white skin. But Gomez’s children will not be accepted because of their dark skin and Hispanic surnames. When they faced the truth, they became furious and decided to stand against this system of inequality and started preparing for doing so.
Mendez v. Westminster case
The case which made Felicitas Gomez an icon for the future world was Mendez v. Westminster. Their battle slapped tight on the face of the system which gave places for racism, oppression and inequality. They fought this battle for their community and changed the whole system of education in California and also set an example in the whole country.
Felicitas used to handle the business and gave time and motivated her husband to talk with other parents. They talked with the local leaders and organizations about the things going wrong in the society. They also talked with parents of other oppressed children.
Finally on 2nd March, 1945 her husband along with other four families filed a lawsuit against the four Orange County School Districts on behalf of the section of the society which never got the opportunity to shine. Approximately five thousand children came under this category were not allowed to study with the White people. The state showed the language barrier as an issue to restrict them to go to the same school as Whites. But when some Hispanic children were tested they performed excellently to prove the state wrong. As they grew up in America, the language barrier has never been a problem for them.
18th February, 1946 the court announced the result in favor of Medez. But the states re-appealed to the higher court.
But the fact is the truth never loses. 14th April of 1947 was a historic day. The court gave the verdict to desegregate the schools of California. At this phase other organizations like NAACP led by Thugwood Marshall and many others helped them. Thugwood Marshall later became the first African justice of the court.
The schools were desegregated and this was a big win for humanity and Felicitas Gomez and her husband as well.
After-effects of the case
After the historic win of Felicitas Gomez and her husband in the case of Mendez v. Westminster, all the Hispanics were allowed to go to the schools which were specifically operated for the White people. Gomez’s children started going to 17th Street Elementary school and got the opportunity to get all the opportunities as other White children. But as we know a change can’t be made overnight, their children were bullied and racially abused because of widespread of racial discrimination throughout the United States at that time. But they knew about the fight made by their parents, so they worked hard and survived with all those difficulties.
Governor Carl Warren was so much influenced by the battle fought by Felicitas and her husband and really appreciated them. And he later took a major role in the Brown case, eight years later.
The legacy and achievements
The historical case of Mendez v. Westminster and the efforts of Felicitas Mendez and her spouse made California the first state to end segregation in schools and education systems. The case made such a huge impact and people were inspired by the spirit of Felicitas in such a large scale that made the case in the pages of history and affected many other cases against the oppression of people and humanity. One of the most important such cases was the Brown vs Board of Education, which brought segregation in education to an end throughout the United States of America.
A documentary was made on the case of Mendes v. Westminster named ” Mendez v. Westminster: For all the children/ Para todos los Ninos”, which was written and produced by Sandra Robbie and broadcasted in PBS. The documentary won the Emmy award and the Golden mic award.
A new exhibit was introduced in the Los Angeles County Law Library titled, “Mendez to Brown” consisting of the photos and documents of the Mendez and Brown case.
Sylvia was invited to the White House for the celebration of “National Hispanic Heritage Month”. She met George Bush who was the President and also met Hilari Clinto, US senator of New York of that time. She shared her story of struggle and fight against racism and marginalization in the society with others to motivate and produce courage among the youth.
14th April of 2007, The United States Postal Service released a strip. Which glorified the hard work and hustle of Felicitas Gomez and others related to the case of Mendez v. Westminster.
“The Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez learning center” is a dual school campus which was made in honor of them.
12th April of 1998, Felicitas Gomez passed away leaving her legacy and great example of spirit behind her.
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