Google honors Puerto Rican civil rights pioneer Felicitas Mendez. Click the picture for a behind-the-scenes video.
Almost a decade before the landmark Brown Supreme Court racial segregation v Board of Education, Felicitas Mendez was already fighting segregation in public schools. The civil rights struggle that she and her husband waged paved the way for the American civil rights movement that would grow in strength in the 1950s and 1960s.
On Tuesday, on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, Google dedicated its Doodle to the Puerto Rican civil rights pioneer and business owner. The Doodle video features archive interviews with Mendez about her family's struggles against racism.
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Born Felicita Gómez Martínez on February 5, 1916 in Juncos, Puerto Rico, and her family, the woman and her family have faced frequent racial discrimination that has been racially mistaken for black Americans. When she was 12, her family moved to Southern California and did farm work in the fields of Orange County, where she was again racialized, this time as a Mexican.
She married Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant and field worker in 1935. Together they opened a bar and grill and ran a 40-acre asparagus farm in Westminster after the Japanese-American owners were sent to an internment camp during World War II.
School segregation was widespread at the time, and Westminster had separate schools for Hispanics and whites, the former being a hut in the city's Mexican neighborhood, while the latter was a prestigious campus that offered better educational benefits. Mendez saw the benefits and tried to enroll her children in the nicer school, but was turned down because of their ethnicity and skin color.
Along with her husband and a group of other parents, Mendez led a lawsuit against Westminster in 1944 to end segregation in the city's schools. The school district argued that there was a language problem that was hampering the educational process – an assertion that broke up when one of the children took a stand and articulated in English, showing that there was no such language barrier as most Hispanic-American children do already spoke english.
In 1946, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Mendez family, ruling that the school district violated children's constitutional rights to equal protection under the law. The ninth circuit appellate court upheld the decision a year later – after involvement of the future Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall – paving the way for the integration of the public school in California and setting the stage for the seminal Brown v. Board of Education of the Supreme Court Seven Years Later.
Mendez died in 1998 after working as a nurse for more than 30 years. In 2011, their daughter Sylvia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her parents' role in the lawsuit.