Sylvia Mendez has lived in California for eight decades and has seen many changes in her time there. She remembers how one time in the early 1940s her parents walked into a restaurant and were ignored by the waiter.

“My father who spoke very good English said, ‘Miss, why aren’t we being served?’ and the waitress said it was because they didn’t serve Mexicans there, so we had to get up and leave,” Mendez said. Even though the restaurant didn’t have a sign that said outside that specified the policy at the time of “no dogs or Mexicans allowed in this restaurant.”

The history of segregation against Mexicans is not widely known, yet for decades Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were not allowed to go to movie theaters unless they sat in the balcony and they were not allowed to enter swimming pools over the weekend while white people swam. They had to wait until Mondays “when the water was dirty and after we got in the pool they would take out the water and put new water in for the white children,” Mendez said.

Public schools were also segregated. There were “whites only” schools and Mexican schools.

In 1945 when the Mendez kids were rejected from enrolling in their community school, Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia’s father, took the issue to court.

Mendez v. Westminster became the first case in U.S. history to rule on desegregation, forcing schools in Orange County to integrate in 1947. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that later ended legal segregation in all public schools nationwide used some of the arguments used in the Mendez case.

At 79 years old, Sylvia Mendez visits classrooms to talk to students about her experience and about the Mendez case because most students know don’t about it.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

Featured image: Years ago, ‘Juan Crow’ laws, patterned after American Jim Crow laws, enforced the racial discrimination practiced against Mexican Americans. Signs reading ‘No Mexicans Allowed’ dotted numerous restaurants and other public accommodations. (From the Russell Lee Photography Collection, courtesy of The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. This photo was part of the Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920 exhibition, organized by the Bullock Texas State History Museum.)

24 thoughts on “‘No Mexicans Allowed:’ School Segregation in the Southwest

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  2. Growing up in Dallas’ “Little Mexico ” in the 1940 s we had our own barber shops, restaurants, cantinas, churches, shoe shops n grocery stores even a movie theater etc. Later I learned it was different in small towns outside of Dallas . Later I learned I grew up in a cocoon.

  3. In 1948 my family moved from Del Rio to Taft and I was probably in the 4th or 5th grade. By that time the “hispanos” had been recently integrated with the “americanos” but the blacks were still segregated in their own separate elementary school. I lived in Taft for about eight years and never interacted with any blacks because they were not integrated while we lived there. It is my understanding that it required legal action and social activism to get the courts to rule that hispanics had to be allowed to attend school with angloes. It was some years later before the black received such a ruling.

    Some of you might remember Mr. Busby, the band director in Taft at the time. I recall that even he had to fight overt racism…. Some of the band members were very blatant that they did not want the hispanic band members to ride in the same school busses with them when the band had to travel out-of-town for band performances.

    Mr. Busby blew a gasket when he found that all the seats had been labeled as “Reserved” by some anglo kids and there were “no seats remaining” in any of the busses. Mr Busby tore up all those signs and, in no uncertain terms, lectured the band members about what they had done and the significance of their actions. Attitudes within the band changed significantly from that point forward.

    And many of us Hispanics did not look significantly different from the privileged Angloes! But we were significantly less financially well-off, and we had an accent.

    That tiny town of Taft, TX in effect had effectively three distinct school systems while the town and surrounding agricultural areas had a population of about 3000 people.

    It was not until 1955 when my family moved to Beeville that I attended a school where I got to interact with black kids.

    So I was introduced to racial “separatism” at a very early age, even though I did not then, and do not now, look different that Anglos. That was a vert brutal lesson to have to learn at such an early age.

  4. The people of Hispanic heritage (they speak Spanish) were native to the Southwest and were conveniently given the name Mexican American by the new masters to the land, the Anglo Americans. This made them foreign origin because nearby there was a foreign country named Mexico. The Anglos got away with being perceived as ‘native.” Even though most of them were from the East and had only recently settled into the newly acquired land. Most of the “heroes” of the Texas Republic were born in places like Tennessee and North Carolina. Today, Sam Houston and Stephen Austin are perceived as native Texans. Hispanics, however, are perceived as of foreign origin even though the Hispanic heritage has been longer in the United States as the Anglo heritage.

  5. Mexican is a nationality just like American is a nationality ,not a specific race hence Mexicans may be of any race(White,Amerindian,Black or mixed race(aka Mestizo).Back in the racial segregation era the Mexicans that were Caucasian(Mexicans of full European descent) were not discriminated,but the Amerindian-descent Mexicans who possessed dark brown skin were.Caucasian Mexicans often easily blended in Caucasian-American society ,especially the ones born in USA ,were English-speaking and went out of their way to assimilate themselves,Much how it was the case for other European-descent peooles(Italians,French,Portuguese,Irish,etc…).I know many Caucasian Mexican Americans who have told me they never suffered discrimination,but that’s not the case for the Brown-skinned Mexican folks.

  6. In 1943 I enrolled in Casa Blanca Elementary School (Riverside County, CA), kindergarten, and my most memorable sentiment was that it was a class “for little kids.” I found it quite childish. Then I lived with my father’s family for a year, and so my First grade was in Riverside where I learned at home to read my uncle’s comics. Back at Casa Blanca for Second Grade I scoped out all of the classes for well-illustrated books, and soon noticed a serious interest in my reading ability – I was told I was “the best reader in school” and was asked to narrate what turned out to be a very racist Thanksgiving play. I read better than sixth graders simply because they were labelled “uneducable” and weren’t being taught. The powerful Citrus Industry instead had young Chicanitos deliberately flunked as illiterates in order to have a “passive labor pool” because mejicanos were winning too many labor strikes. Our own community was expected to turn against itself, by the dismal and exploitive creatures in charge of our lives. Mr. Mabra Madden the principal was alert to report Chicano labor organizing, so that it could be squashed. He decided that I might be a thief. and drove me to my grandparents home to suggest this to my Indian grandmother, who correctly took this white man for the liar and victimizer that he was. She told him “I raised Antonio and I know he’s telling the truth.” C/S

  7. My great grandma had a lot to do with makeing schools that would teach Mexican kids in San Antonio Texas. They even named a street with her name Medina after her. Later Bernarda Medina Mercadante Gonzales

  8. Street in front on old train station with statue of Indian about to shoot an arrow on roof top. The Medina street is just in front.

  9. As a retired bilingual teacher from Colorado, I have lived knowing that as a first grader in 1962, my teacher instituted her own “Mexican School”. While it was against the law to segregate brown skinned students who were Spanish surnamed and spoke Spanish publicly, a racist teacher could create her own version of Mexican school without notice. As punishment for speaking Spanish during instruction, teacher would take myself and two other classmates to her house two blocks from the school. Once inside, we were made to clean and scoop up dog shit left by her two dogs. I developed PTSD from this experience which would go undiagnosed for 30 years. At age 48, I found the classmates who had experienced the haunting and torturing memories of first grade as I had. They confirmed how we were singled out because we spoke “Mexican” and the frequency of the torture we experienced because of our difference. I want to publish my story.

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