When Sylvia Mendez and her siblings were prohibited from attending an all-white school near her Orange County, Calif., home in 1946, her parents fought back, filing suit in a groundbreaking education desegregation case.
Unknown to most, the Mendez v. Westminster case set a precedent for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended racial segregation in public facilities in 1954.
Mendez gave the opening keynote address to an audience of nearly 300 Latino educators, scholars, elected officials, community members and university students from across the nation at the first Triennial Conference on Latino Education and Immigrant Integration at UGA Oct. 26-28.
When she asked the audience how many had heard of the case, few raised their hands.
It is for this reason that Mendez has dedicated 12 years of her life to traveling around the country and speaking about the case.
“My dream is finally coming true,” she said. “Our goal is for the case to be taught in all schools—and for Latinos to know that are they are part of U.S. history.”
Mendez, only 10 when her parents began fighting the injustice of unequal education, was unaware of what was going on until she was approached by a boy at an all-white school in Santa Ana, who told her that she didn’t belong.
“All this time, going to court, going to school, I had been so protected by my family that I didn’t even know what they were fighting,” she said.
After being confronted, Mendez told her mother that she did not want to return to school. It was only later that she realized how important equal access to quality education was and why her parents fought for her to get it.
She urged the audience to act as role models for current Latino students and to show them that they can live the American dream without giving up their language or their culture.
Alejandro Portes, the opening keynote speaker in the conference’s second day, has spent most of his career studying U.S. immigrants.
Portes, a professor of sociology and co-founder and director of Princeton University’s Center for Migration and Development, has conducted a longitudinal study of children of immigrants in schools in Florida and California, that was published in the 2002 book Legacies.
Portes’ research led him to form his Theory of Segmented Assimilation.
His model consists of three parts: an identification of the major factors at play, such as nationality and education; a description of the principal barriers confronting today’s children of immigrants; and a prediction of the paths expected from the interplay of these forces.
The education, family income, unemployment, adolescent pregnancies and incarceration of immigrant respondents were compared across nine countries of origin. These findings provided the most tangible evidence of selective or downward assimilation.
In comparison, Mexican children had among the highest rates of adolescent pregnancies and incarceration. Only 1 percent of the sample overcame the consequences of a disadvantaged upbringing. However, Portes found three commonalities consistent among the “successful exceptions:” Each had strong parental figures who preserved their culture and protected them from street life; each had the interest of a significant other, such as a teacher, who provided supervision; and each was involved with programs that supported their assimilation.
The three-day conference, hosted by the College of Education’s Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education, focused on best practices, policy and research related to the Latino educational achievement gap, immigration and education.
“This is an important first step in bringing together key resources and forging a coalition of national leaders in Latino education who will continue to work together to promote educational equity for all children across the nation,” said Pedro Portes, professor and CLASE executive director.
The conference was co-sponsored by Clemson University, Kennesaw State University’s Center for Hispanic Studies, UGA’s Graduate School and College of Family and Consumer Sciences, the Journal of Latinos and Education, National Latino Education Network, National Latino Education Research Agenda Project, LatinosinHigherEd.com and LatinoGraduate.com.
For more information on the conference, visit www.coe.uga.edu/clase/conference/index.htm.