The program told the history of Mendez versus Westminster School Board, a groundbreaking desegregation case in 1945 that led to the end of “Mexican schools” in California and prepared the way for the more famous Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954.
“My aunt called me all excited about the program,” Nadine says, “and she tells me how she grew up with Sylvia Mendez, whose father started the legal action. She put me in touch with Sylvia, and from there, everything just snowballed.”
UCLA’s experts on local Latino history believe Nadine’s dissertation may be the first to explore the landmark case in depth. “Sometimes, groundbreaking research happens as a result of serendipity,” says Professor Daniel G. Solorzano, Nadine’s adviser and chair of the Department of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
For Nadine, the rewards have been personal as well as academic. She knew that her family had “a long history in Westminster, but I never knew our connection to the Mendez case,” she says. “My family was involved in the class action suit. You can see my grandfather’s signature on some of the petitions. They were neighbors of the Mendez family.
” Because of that history, Nadine’s surname has opened doors for her that might have remained closed to another researcher. “They trust me with their stories,” Nadine says. “There’s a big story to be told here, and I want to tell it from the experiences of those who lived it.”
That story began when Gonzalo Mendez tried to register his children at the elementary school he had attended as a boy. Since then, the school had been designated “the white school,” and people with surnames like Mendez were no longer welcome. Outraged at the injustice of segregation and believing that change was possible in a democracy, Mendez decided to fight the case in court. With his wife, Felicita, stepping in to run their successful agricultural business, Mendez had the time to travel and talk to other parents, recruiting families from four Orange County communities to join in a lawsuit.
The judge declared the Mexican schools illegal and ruled that the school board’s insistence that there was a language issue didn’t hold. “Most of the children spoke English,” Nadine says, “and Sylvia testified in court to prove that.” After the ruling was upheld on appeal, then-Governor Earl Warren moved to desegregate all public schools and other public spaces as well.
Sylvia Mendez continues to lecture on the desegregation case at all educational levels, and she has been a vital assistant in Nadine’s research. Sandra Robbie, producer of the PBS documentary, has also been helpful. Their goals go beyond recording a little-known piece of history.
“I want to try to understand the experiences of Mexican Americans in the age of segregation,” Nadine she says, “ to see what we can learn from these experiences and how we can apply that knowledge to what’s going on now in de facto segregation.”
Although she didn’t have to attend Mexican schools, Nadine knows from experience that Latinos continue to have a different educational experience than their white peers. Latinos tend to enter higher education through community colleges, for example, because “the high schools they are attending are not preparing them to go on to UC,” Nadine says. “Community colleges become their stepping stone. That’s how I got here.”
After studying at Golden West and Orange Coast Community Colleges, Nadine got a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach. Assigned to a bilingual third and fourth grade in Anaheim, Nadine was distressed when she was unable to get her Latino students tested for learning disabilities: The school administration insisted the children’s problems were cultural.
Nadine’s frustration eventually took her to Cal State Northridge for a master’s degree in Chicano Studies “because I wanted to understand the bigger picture.” Encouraged by her professors to apply for a doctoral program, she was accepted at UCLA. The Graduate School of Education was the inevitable choice: “Everything that I thought about or examined, whether it was politics or economics, I was doing it from a teacher’s perspective,” she says.
Nadine also hopes to see the Mendez case become part of the public school curriculum. “If children of color can see themselves reflected in the curriculum, education becomes much more meaningful and purposeful,” Nadine says. Thus, her dissertation will include recommendations on discussing the case in the classroom, a place that is still Nadine’s preferred career destination. “It’s still where I find my passion,” she says.