Wednesday, September 15, 2021
APFA Celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month
Today marks the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, honoring the culture, heritage, and many contributions Hispanic Americans have made to this country. National Hispanic Heritage Month is one of many celebrations reflecting the blending of different people and cultures that make up the United States of America.
National Hispanic Heritage Week took shape as Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation in 1968. September 15th was chosen to honor the signing of the Act of Independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which formally took place on September 15th, 1821, and September 16th, 1810, which honored Mexico’s Independence Day. In 1988, National Hispanic Heritage Week was extended for a month through legislation introduced by California Representative Esteban Edward Torres (D-Pico Rivera). With the extension, the commemorative period now includes El Día de la Raza (October 12th) and Chile’s Independence Day (September 18th).
A Profile in Courage: Sylvia Mendez
National Hispanic Heritage Month offers an opportunity to reflect on influential contributors to the Civil Rights and Labor movements. Last year, we recognized Dolores Huerta and César Chavez for their unrelenting fight on behalf of the farmworkers represented by the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
Of Mexican-Puerto Rican heritage, Sylvia Mendez was the child at the center of the landmark 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case. Shortly after her birth in 1936, her father, Gonzalo Mendez, leased a farm in Westminster, CA, from a Japanese-American family ordered to relocate during the Japanese-American internment. As the school year began in September of 1944, school officials notified Mendez that his three children would be attending a Mexican school. Immediately following this notice, Mendez began organizing Mexican-American parents in school districts located in Westminster and the Orange County, CA, area to challenge this segregation. In 1945, Mendez and other parents sued the school districts in federal court.
In February 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the Mexican-American parents, stating that the Orange County school districts violated Mexican-American citizens’ “equal protection” rights. The Orange County, CA, school districts appealed, and on April 14th, 1947, the federal appeals court judges ruled 7–0 to uphold Judge McCormick’s decision. On January 19th, 1948, Sylvia Mendez and her siblings were allowed to attend the 17th St Elementary School and were among the first Hispanics to attend an all-white school in California.
During and after her career as a pediatric nurse, Sylvia Mendez devotes her life to education about this landmark case, speaking of the poor treatment received at her newly integrated school and her determination to succeed in a school her father relentlessly fought for her to attend. In 2011, Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama for her advocacy for educational opportunities for “children of all backgrounds and all walks of life.”
Sylvia Mendez continues to advocate for Hispanic student rights in the United States.
Sylvia Mendez receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, 2011
“We went to court every day, I listened to what they were saying, but really I was dreaming about going back to that beautiful school,” -Sylvia Mendez
Today and every day, we honor Sylvia Mendez and all Hispanic Labor and Civil Rights Leaders, whose tenacity and determination have enriched the push for equal rights in America and countries worldwide.
Paul Hartshorn, Jr.
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