On Friday, school desegregation icon Sylvia Mendez visited students at the Berkeley elementary school named in her honor. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

They’d read books about her, written reports on her, and drawn pictures of her, but on Friday the students of Sylvia Mendez Elementary got to meet their school’s namesake in person.

The visit by school-desegregation icon Sylvia Mendez was a momentous occasion for the people inside the buildings that now bear her name. It was an opportunity for them to celebrate the success of their years-long effort to rid their school of the name of slaveholding conservationist Joseph LeConte and to pick a new one that better reflected the school’s values and bilingual program.

Mendez and her sister, Sandra Duran, spent the morning at the Russell Street school speaking with students about Mendez v. Westminster, their family’s landmark California desegregation case. They will return in the evening for a barbecue and an assembly where Mendez will share her story.

Now 82 years old, Mendez was just nine when she was denied entrance to a white school in Orange County because of her Mexican heritage. Her parents’ battle with the school district ultimately ended legal segregation in California schools in 1947 and laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education several years later. Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren both played key roles in each case.

As a child, Mendez understood little about the significance of her family’s fight. She told students Friday that she just wanted to go to the white school with the nice monkey bars.

Mendez later worked as a registered nurse and retired in her fifties to care for her ill mother, she told Berkeleyside in an interview Friday. It wasn’t until then that her mother, Felicitas Mendez, conveyed to her daughter the importance of what the family had gone through.

“We would be talking, and she’d say, ‘This should be in history books. People should know about it,’” Mendez said.

Sylvia Mendez (left) and her sister, Sandra Duran. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Mendez said her legs were shaking the first time she spoke in front of a group of high school students, but now she regularly and comfortably tells her story at large conferences and universities. In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mendez often visits schools, and when students reach out to her for school projects, she invites them to her house in Fullerton. But Friday was her first time on a campus named after her.

“That was so, so awesome,” Mendez said. “It topped the Medal of Freedom because this is about education. This is about students — and to go into a school that was so multicultural.”

Although Mendez and Brown ended legal segregation, the cases did not successfully desegregate the United States education system. In fact, decades later — and 50 years after Berkeley Unified voluntarily integrated its schools — researchers say school segregation is widespread and getting worse.

Sylvia Mendez Elementary looks nothing like the all-white school Mendez gained access to, or the dirty neglected one she was stuck in before that with other children of color. The school is home to Berkeley Unified’s two-way immersion program and a diverse student body. Kindergarteners spend 90% of their classroom time in Spanish and 10% in English. For the fifth graders, it’s half and half.

The program is designed to graduate fully bilingual students and to reclassify English learners as English speakers. Both Spanish and English books line the shelves of the tidy library. The hallway walls are covered in decorated photos of Mendez and a colorful display for “Latinx History Month.”

Sylvia Mendez students dance at a morning assembly Friday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

None of the students who met Mendez on Friday have experienced a school like she attended so long ago, but the older kids understood how her legacy affects them.

“It was cool that we got to meet the person who our school was named after, and who made this school possible,” said Sofia, 10, standing on the schoolyard with a diverse group of friends. “She made it possible for us all to be together.”

“We were finally getting to meet someone who actually got us to play with someone else that’s a different race,” added Jeremy, 10.

Mendez and Duran, 67, started the long day at an all-school assembly, where they watched students sing songs in English and Spanish and dance around with the kind of energy only little children have at 8:15 a.m.

When the assembly ended, the sisters staked out spots in the school library. Each grade level took a turn meeting with them there and asking Mendez questions.

The fifth-graders had thought critically about her story, wondering how she felt transitioning to the white school, what family life was like while her dad was in court, and what it was like to meet Obama.

The kindergarteners were very confused about why Mendez had to go to a “Mexican school,” and why white kids teased her.

“They weren’t taught when they were little that we need to love everybody,” Mendez told them.

The youngest students, in transitional kindergarten, were more interested in what Mendez was wearing and what her favorite color was than in lawsuits or discrimination.

Sylvia Mendez says hello to young students who’ve learned about her family’s history. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Sylvia Mendez says hello to young students who’ve learned about her family’s history. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Students at what’s now Sylvia Mendez Elementary spent a long time last year learning not just about the Mendez case but also about many other figures and events that made the shortlist for LeConte’s potential new name.

When they studied Mendez, they dove into the story, said Principal Veronica Valerio.

“They really contextualized it and understood,” she said. “When they learned that an 8-year-old girl just wanted to go to her local public school and was denied entrance because she was Mexican, they really connected on that level because they themselves are kids. They thought, how would it feel for me? That resonated with a lot of our kids and they thought it was an amazing feat.”

Mendez’s visit to the school was personally meaningful for Valerio, who like Mendez grew up in Southern California and is the daughter of Mexican farmworkers. Valerio first learned about Mendez v. Westminster in a Chicano Studies class at UCLA.

“To think this child made it possible for me to go to any school I’d like to in California was just amazing,” Valerio said.

The signage changed on the former LeConte Elementary School over the summer. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Since Mendez started giving lectures, the story of her family’s case, which made California the first state to desegregate its schools, has gotten more recognition. But it’s still often left out of textbooks, Mendez said. Her parents do have two schools named after them, but Berkeley’s is the first with Mendez’s own name.

Mendez first said, “No, no! Not me!” when she heard the plan. But she hopes the sign on the building that says “Sylvia Mendez Elementary” will remind students to “be courageous and fight against injustice.”

“And stay in school,” she said.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...