On the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 in the U.S., today’s Doodle celebrates Puerto Rican civil rights pioneer and business owner Felicitas Mendez. Alongside her husband Gonzalo, Felicitas helped to spearhead and win the monumental lawsuit Mendez v. Westminster, which in 1946 resulted in the first US federal court ruling against public school segregation—almost a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.
Felicitas Mendez was born Felicita Gómez Martínez on February 5, 1916 in the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico. She moved with her parents to the American Southwest as a preteen, and the family eventually joined the Latino community of agricultural workers in California’s Orange County. In 1935, she married Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant who worked with her father in the fields. Together, the couple opened a neighborhood cafe and later managed a successful farm in the small town of Westminster.
In 1944, the Mendez’s three children were refused enrollment at a local public school based on their ethnicity and skin color. Unwilling to accept this injustice, the couple decided to fight back. With the lawsuit Mendez v. Westminster, Gonzalo Mendez and four other parents sued the Westminster school district and several others to demand an end to the segregation of Hispanic students. Felicitas Mendez organized committees to support the case and skillfully managed the Mendez’s farm on her own, bringing in record profits that helped to subsidize the lawsuit.
On February 18, 1946, the federal district court concluded that the school districts were in violation of Mexican-American citizens’ right to equal protection under the law and ruled in favor of the Mendez family and the other parents. Affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the following year, this landmark decision directly paved the way for a law that called for the integration of all California public schools that same year, as well as the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled the segregation of public schools unconstitutional seven years later.
In 2011, Mendez’s daughter Sylvia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the United States’ highest civilian honor—in recognition of her and her parents’ role in the Westminster v. Mendez case and her lifelong dedication to civil rights and education that followed.
Thank you, Felicitas Mendez and family, for helping to lead the way toward a more just future.