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Desegregation hero is focus of new play


When we think about school desegregation in the US, the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education immediately springs to mind. But the roots of the movement stem from a lesser known lawsuit. Seven years earlier, Mendez v. Westminster School District was a landmark desegregation case that ended school segregation in California and had direct connections to the later national lawsuit.

The Rochester Latino Theatre Company this week will premiere "Separate is Never Equal," a play written by Annette Ramos and Don Bartalo, at MuCCC (142 Atlantic Avenue). The play is based on the children's book of the same name by Duncan Tonatiuh.

The play tells the true story of Sylvia Mendez, a child of Mexican-American and Puerto Rican descent, whose parents filed a lawsuit when Sylvia and her brothers were denied admission to the all-white 17th Street Elementary School in Southern California. The production includes dialogue lifted from the book, but Ramos and Bartalo have also sourced material from transcripts of the court case.

Thurgood Marshall represented Sylvia, and used some of the arguments from the Mendez case to win Brown v. Board of Education. And after the Mendez family won their case, Governor Earl Warren, who later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court and presided over Brown v. Board of Education, signed into law the repeal of remaining segregationist provisions in California statutes.

Sylvia Mendez is now a retired nurse, and has spent much of her life travelling and speaking to students on the importance of education. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- America's highest civilian honor -- for her efforts.

Sylvia Mendez will attend the premiere of "Separate is Never Equal" on Friday, June 10. During the VIP reception from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., City Council members Elaine Spaull and Jackie Ortiz will present Mendez with a City Proclamation.

"She's still advocating for the cause," Ramos said during an interview with City discussing the play. An edited version of that conversation follows.

City: What are the origins of writing this play?

Annette Ramos: I co-wrote the play with Don Bartalo, who approached me last fall after he had received the book from his daughter as a birthday present. He could not believe that this story existed and it was not being told through theater, or even taught in American history. He immediately called me and said, "We need to do this production," and once I read the book I wholeheartedly agreed.

Were either of you familiar with Sylvia Mendez's story prior to reading the book?

Neither one of us. Isn't that something?

We learn about Brown v. Board of Education in school, but Mendez's story isn't so widespread. Why do you think this origin of desegregation has been relatively obscured?

It only reached the California Supreme Court, so you're really looking at a judicial law that only affected and impacted California, where as Brown v. Board of Education had an impact across the nation.

Sylvia Mendez was a child when her parents brought the case to court, and was one of three Mendez children. Why does this story center on Sylvia specifically?

She was the oldest, and her brothers were younger. Sylvia had a voice in helping her parents see how important it was for her to have quality public school education. Her father, who was Mexican-American, actually attended the Westminster School without an issue in the 1930's, but that was prior to the segregation of the schools. So there was no other school for Mexican children to go to, and far fewer children of Mexican descent attended American schools.

When they created the school for Mexican children later, it was a one-room space with dirt floors, no playground, no resources, and was situated near a cow pasture with an electric barbed-wire fence. Gonzalo Mendez did not want that for his own children. So, Sylvia became sort of the poster child of what the potential of quality education could be for children of color.

Sylvia was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. How is that conveyed in the play?

We tell the story from Sylvia's point of view. It begins with Sylvia's mother reading the book to Sylvia's little brothers, telling them why it is important. And then we flash back to her first day at Westminster School, where she's being bullied. The story proceeds through the narrative, exploring why her father took the lead on advocating for equitable educational opportunities for all children.

Mrs. Mendez also played a crucial role -- Mr. Mendez could not have done the work of advocating if she had not taken over the role of running and maintaining their farm. Which is very much part of what Latino identity is: Women care not only for the family, but also step in when their counterparts are focused on something else.

The story focuses on fighting inequality, but it also includes themes of solidarity -- after Mendez filed the lawsuit, the Westminster School District said his children could attend, but none of the other Latino kids could. Mendez didn't accept this, and later, a multitude of multiethnic organizations -- the ACLU, American Jewish Congress, Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP -- stood with the Mendez family in the appellate case. Can you comment further on the importance of solidarity in this story?

Mr. Mendez could have said, "Well, I got mine," but he saw it as bigger issue. He was a very forward-thinking human being in his sense of civil liberties, and really understood the power of uniting and standing together. In a way, he was a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr. He looked at the cause as greater than his own need.

The groups also knew that the impact of that decision would positively impact their right for equitable educational opportunities. What you're really looking at is what the Civil Rights Movement came to represent. Oftentimes, and certainly in our classrooms across America, we think of Civil Rights as only a black and white issue. It encompasses many people of color whose voices were silent or faces not seen.

How do you view telling this story in the context of Donald Trump's candidacy, as he stokes the fire of racism against Latinos, specifically Mexicans?

One of the things RLTC does is look at every year as an opportunity to raise awareness around issues. This year as we were planning our season, we looked at immigration as being a significant factor. The offensive language with which Trump spoke about specifically Mexican-Americans, but really colored all Latinos as 'those people we don't want in America' -- bringing awareness to this powerful and significant story counters that. We need to look at who the heroes of all America are. That includes all people of color, too.