Long after her parents fought for an equal opportunity for their children in the school system, Sylvia Mendez gazed upon the gathering before her, filled with pride as she watched a new generation engage in educational activities.
The scene occurred at the grand opening of Mendez Tribute Monument Park in Westminster, where city officials and educational leaders were among a large turnout for the ceremony on Thursday. An effort that got underway in 2017, the park now commemorates the Mendez, et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al case.
The 1947 case, which saw five Mexican American families challenge school segregation, will no longer be a footnote in the history books, City Manager Christine Cordon said. Speakers contended that it was a precursor to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled separate but equal educational facilities to be unconstitutional in 1954.
“Just take a moment to think of the significance of what we are celebrating today,” Jeff Hittenberger, an education professor at Vanguard University and former chief academic officer of the Orange County Department of Education, said. “Seventy-five years ago, three American children were turned away from an American school because of their ethnicity.
“That was challenged by their families, who believed in the American dream and believed in the American principles. They stood up for our principles and made us a better community and a better nation.”
Hittenberger concluded his remarks by calling on visitors to the park to be the stewards of history going forward.
A grateful Sylvia Mendez, 86, called it “a big honor” to see the project completed, before turning her attention to the future.
“Yes, the case led to the desegregation of public schools in California,” Mendez said. “And yes, we are truly very happy, but today, we must continue with [the] legacy of education for everyone. And today, I am so proud that today, I have students here from a college and from a grammar school.”
Mendez then looked into the crowd for the schoolchildren, finding them assembled along a wall to the east, where an assortment of interpretive panels shared literature regarding her family’s case that occurred nearly 80 years earlier.
The park, located at 7371 Westminster Blvd., is now home to two statues created by sculptor Ignacio Gomez, whose work has been featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Mendez family and dignitaries first unveiled a statue of parents Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who fought for the right of their three children to attend 17th Street School, which had been designated for white children, instead of Hoover Elementary, known at the time as the “Mexican school.”
Gomez spoke to his intention to reflect the significance of the civil rights case by portraying the parents as larger-than-life figures.
“As the American flags in front of all the schools in the nation are raised, we have to thank Mr. and Mrs. Mendez for their courage and what they accomplished to do away with desegregation in California and beyond,” Gomez said. “Mr. and Mrs. Mendez are bigger than life. The statues are monumental because what they accomplished in the history of the United States for the children is monumental.”
Attendees then transitioned over to the entrance of the park to see the second statue, which depicts two children walking to school with books in hand, symbolizing the 5,000 children represented in the case. “We the People,” the famous first words of the U.S. Constitution, are prominently displayed at the feet of those who approach it. The inscription at the base of the statue reads “1947: Toward equality in our schools.”
The educational content around the grounds has been made accessible in the English, Spanish and Vietnamese languages through the use of QR codes. The Orange County Department of Education worked with the city and the Mendez family to produce the material. The park also includes augmented reality features.
Sergio Contreras, a former member of the Westminster City Council who was a strong advocate for recognizing the case in his time on the panel, said the park will be an inspiration in a quest for a “truly merit-based society.”
“By creating this memorial, we remember the successes of our past, and hopefully, we can inspire the successes of our future,” Contreras said. “To every student, young and old, who visits this beautiful place, may you learn from Gonzalo Mendez’s family story, that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and be inspired that you can, too.”
The park also features a giant book monument, which Assistant City Manager Adolfo Ozaeta said weighs 4,000 pounds. It provides an introduction to the influential civil rights case and makes mention of the five families involved in the suit: Mendez, Guzman, Palomino, Estrada and Ramirez.
Construction of the park began in 2020, backed by $1.5 million from California State Parks and private donations.
A resolution approved by the city in 2017 promised to honor the Mendez v. Westminster case. In addition to the park, the city also plans to have a Mendez Freedom Trail.
“I really want to thank the Mendez family, who fought for educational opportunities for our future generations,” Mayor Tri Ta said. “The Mendez family is not only the legacy of the city of Westminster but also [the] legacy of the country.”