Discover Your Island

Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient and Educational Equality Activist Speaks at Island University

October 21, 2016

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas –Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi hosted Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and educational equality activist, Sylvia Mendez. Mendez, who was invited to campus on Oct. 14, spoke about the influential “Mendez vs. Westminster” case and gave an account of her personal history and the importance of a good education. The event was free and open to the public.

Mendez was born in 1936 in California to Gonzalo, a Mexican immigrant, and Felicitas, a Puerto Rican immigrant. When Mendez was eight years old, she was denied access to a white school in her community. Her father, along with four other families of Mexican descent, sued the school district in a U.S. District court and won. In response to the ruling, California schools were integrated and a law outlawing segregated schools passed. Mendez, now a retired nurse, has made it her mission to increase the awareness about the “Mendez vs. Westminster” case and has become an advocate for educational equity.

 “My mother, as she was dying, told me, ‘you have to go out there and tell your story about the brave Latinos who fought for an integrated and desegregated California,’” said Mendez. “So now, I go around the country trying to spread the word about how intelligent and motivated Latinos fought for education. I also do this to keep my family’s legacy alive.”

The event was held in conjunction with the Island University’s Hispanic Heritage Month, sponsored by the Provost’s Office, and organized by the Department of Psychology and Sociology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“When you think about the history of how racial injustice or oppression is told, it’s mostly from a black-white perspective,” said Dr. Isabel Araiza, Associate Professor of Sociology. “Sylvia Mendez is bringing the civil rights and social justice history of Latinos from a status of invisible to visible.”

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

“Social change doesn’t just happen,” said Araiza.  “It takes regular people, like Sylvia Mendez’s parents, to being willing to speak truth to power over and over again to bring about change.”