Celebrating Felicitas Mendez – Go behind-the-scenes of today’s Doodle below!
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.
Special thanks to the family of Felicitas Mendez for their partnership on this project. Below, Sylvia Mendez shares her thoughts on her mother’s legacy:
I am so proud to be the daughter of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez and to have the opportunity to keep the promise I made to my mother. I remember my mother saying to me, “No one knows about Mendez vs Westminster, how five families fought to end segregation in California. When we all decided to fight, it was not only for you but for all the children.”
It was that day that I promised my mother I would make sure everyone knew about the fight and Mendez vs Westminster. It became my legacy!!
Pictured: Feliticas and Gonzalo Mendez.
Photo credits: Courtesy of the Mendez Family
Q&A with Doodler Emily Barrera
Q: Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?
A: As a Latina living in the United States, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to honor Felicitas. It was incredible to learn how she and her husband, Gonzalo Mendez, led an educational battle against segregated schools in California and how it paved the way for the larger American civil rights movement. Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez are unsung heroes, and their story deserves to be shared and talked about widely.
Q: What were your first thoughts when you were approached about the project?
A: I’ll admit, I had never heard of Felicitas or what she and her husband did before this Doodle, but I’m glad I had the honor to commemorate her and her family. The more I researched her, the more I realized how connected I was to this subject. It made me feel proud of who I am and where I come from. It’s thanks to people like her that I’ve had access to educational opportunities here in the United States.
Q: Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for this Doodle?
A: I did a lot of research and referenced many photos and videos of her and her family, but I also had the chance to talk to my own aunts and uncles about their personal experiences and the challenges they faced as Mexican kids studying in the United States.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your Doodle?
A: I hope this Doodle sparks interest and makes people want to learn more about Felicitas Mendez and her family’s pursuit for equality. There’s still a long way to go to achieve equal rights and provide the same opportunities to everyone, but every step counts. As we keep pushing forward, we need to keep sharing stories like these from history, to teach about perseverance, acceptance, and to celebrate our differences.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Google is spotlighting Latino businesses around the country and encouraging people to support local neighborhood businesses. We’re also providing free tools and training to help Latino-owned businesses adapt and grow. Find more information here.
You can find more about Celebrating Felicitas Mendez on the official Google Doodle Page