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Courts in the Classroom > Lesson Plans & Materials > Mendez v. Westminster > Driven to Educate Driven to Educate

O.C. woman to take her message about the Mendez v. Westminster case on the road

Monday, March 5, 2007
The Orange County Register

By now, you may have heard about Mendez v. Westminster. In 1947, the landmark case desegregated schools in California, thanks to the battle launched by the Mendez family.

Sandra Robbie and Bus

Sylvia Mendez, a third-grader, wasn't allowed to attend a 17th Street school in Westminster because she was Mexican-American. Her father, Gonzalo Mendez, sued the school district, and the rest is history. History you've probably heard about in bits and pieces.

But you probably haven't heard of Sandra Robbie. And she's likely the reason you've heard of the history at all – she made an Emmy-winning documentary about the case.

You're going to be hearing a lot more from her. There's going to be a postage stamp, books, another documentary and maybe even a movie.

But first there's the bus.

It's a 1967 VW bus. Bright orange (for Orange County). Robbie bought it on the Internet from a guy in Texas. She won't say how much she paid for it, but it has new upholstery and iPod compatible sound. On the outside, a magnetic mural will tell the Mendez story.

A self-described Mendez maniac (she talks about the case every day with anybody she meets), Robbie is going on the "MvW Magical History Tour."

The bus tour starts this month. The agenda isn't entirely firmed up, but it will include schools, college campuses, museums. Her mission: To educate the public about the Mendez case and how it connects to other cultures.

She informally kicked off the tour, minus the bus, in February at UC Irvine with a pop quiz for students.

Q. What was the first state to end school segregation?
A. California

Q. Name three states that had segregated schools, swimming pools and movie theaters?
A. California, Arizona, Texas.

Sandra Robbie and BusAt UCI, about 150 students took the quiz. Many were surprised to learn about segregation happening in Orange County.

Those who participated got "Thank you, Thurgood" bumper stickers or a temporary tattoo. Then they heard the story.

Thurgood Marshall, an African-American who later became a Supreme Court justice, was the NAACP attorney who oversaw a friend of the court brief that contributed to the Mendez appeal, helping to end segregation in California's schools.

It's just one way Robbie is trying to show how the Mendez case is tied to other cultures.

She makes it clear that the Mendez story really begins in 1943 with Gonzalo Mendez and Seima Munemitsu signing a lease agreement. This was during World War II when Japanese-Americans were being put in internment camps. The Mendez family stayed at the farm, and the Munemitsu family got to hold on to their land.

In 1944, Sylvia and her relatives went to the 17th Street school to enroll. They were turned away because they were Mexican. Gonzalo, a farmer from Chihuahua, Mexico, and his wife, Felicitas, a Puerto Rican, took on a monumental battle. The suit had allies in the NAACP, ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Citizens League.

The Mendez case preceded the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education by seven years. The friend of the court brief that was contributed to Mendez by the NAACP later served as the model in the argument in Brown v. Board of Education.

That's the gist of the story. But there is so much more.

There's Robbie.

In 2000, Robbie, a stay-at-home mom raising two kids with her husband in north Tustin, picked up the Register and read an article about the Mendez case.

A third-generation Hispanic who grew up in Westminster, she had never heard of the story.

She was stunned.

"That was a moment that changed my life. I grew up in Westminster and never knew that segregation existed. When I looked up from that article, it was a paradigm shift. Everything in my world looked different. I wanted my kids to know about this story."

While she thirsted to know more about the Mendez family, she didn't have much in common with them. She didn't speak Spanish. In fact, her parents spoke Spanish when they didn't want the kids to understand them.

She didn't experience discrimination from her peers in her high school, where she was a popular cheerleader. She had braces. She and her brother shared a car.

In her 20s, she earned her bachelor's in sociology at UC Santa Barbara, where she saw "Salt of the Earth," a film about New Mexican copper miners who fought for equal wages.

"I didn't realize until that moment that I had not seen Mexican-Americans portrayed in movies as hard-working, honest, valuable, ethical people. I had seen them portrayed as gang members or thieves or undesirables," she said.

In her 30s, she stayed home with her babies. In her 40s, she began taking TV production classes at Golden West College and applied for a job at KOCE, Orange County's public television station.

"When I went to work at KOCE, they took me in as the world's oldest intern," the now 48-year-old says.

She approached KOCE with the idea of a documentary about the Mendez case. They took a chance on her.

It paid off – it earned an Emmy in 2003 for arts, culture and history. She beat out major broadcasters from the Los Angeles area.

She left her job at KOCE in September to focus full time on educating the nation about Mendez v. Westminster.Commemorative Stamp

The stamp commemorating the case will be unveiled on April 14, the 60th anniversary of the case.

© 2006 USPS. All Rights Reserved.
The stamp will be issued in September.

One of the goals of the tour is to educate people about the stamp. Otherwise, it might not get noticed.

"People aren't going to buy the stamp if they don't know about it," she said. "This is a real opportunity. A real teachable moment."

Contact the writer: 949-454-7353 or