Marking the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, Google honors today a civil rights icon that isn’t spotlighted enough: Felicitas Mendez, a pioneer in the desegregation of United States public schools. When her children were denied enrollment to a local public school because of their ethnicity and skin color, Mendez challenged the system—and she won.
Born Feb. 5, 1916, in the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico, born Felicita Gómez Martínez relocated to the U.S. with her family as a preteen. Orange County, California, is where they ultimately ended up, making as best a living they could as agricultural workers alongside many other Latine families. Eventually she opened a cantina with her Mexican husband, Gonzalo Mendez, whom she married in 1935.
Small-town Westminster, about a thousand miles northeast, later became the couple’s home; they bought a farm there, and their work led them to fare well economically.
The school district, however, was unwelcoming to her three children. Rounding up a committee in support, the unflinching Puerto Rican, now Felicitas Mendez, sued the Westminster school district, among others, under the lawsuit Mendez v. Westminster in 1946.
Funded by her farming income, Mendez’s case traveled up to the federal district court, where it was decided that the school districts “were in violation of Mexican-American citizens’ right to equal protection under the law.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling a year after.
Mendez’s fight is considered a stage-setter for the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that ruled unconstitutional the segregation of U.S. public schools—period—in 1954.
Mendez passed in 1998. Surviving family partnered with Google on the project, expressing pride in the historic civil rights progress the Mendez parents spearheaded.
Daughter Sylvia Mendez, who earned degrees in nursing, worked for the Los Angeles University of Southern California Medical Center, and is now retired, was honored with a United States Post Office stamp in 2007, and in 2011, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. A California school is named for her parents: Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in East Los Angeles.