Production highlights little-known desegregation case

ROCHESTER — Theater should not only entertain but inform and inspire.

This statement is an integral part of the Rochester Latino Theatre Company’s mission, and it is especially relevant as the organization produces its second play this season about the immigrant experience in the United States.

"Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation" follows on the company’s successful production last month of "Elvira," based on the experiences of Elvira Arellano, a native of Mexico and activist for immigrant rights. Arellano and her young son sought sanctuary in a Chicago church for a year before she was deported in 2007. The play presents a fictionalized account of an interview with a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official after Arellano’s real-life arrest in Chicago.

"Separate Is Never Equal" is the story of a Mexican family who fought for equal rights in public education in southern California in the 1940s. Based on the federal court case Méndez v. Westminster, the play was adapted from the children’s book of the same name by Duncan Tonatiuh. Annette Ramos, cofounder of RLTC and producer for the show, said she and Don Bartalo of BART Productions cowrote the adaptation of the book, and Tonatiuh subsequently approved the script.

In an e-mail, Tonatiuh said that he is pleased that the RLTC production will expose more people to the stories of such unsung heroes as the Méndez family, which fought for justice as much as did famous Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chávez.

"I think it’s important that children and all people learn more about the different groups that have suffered prejudice, and it’s important that they also learn about the different people who have had the courage to fight against that prejudice," Tonatiuh said.

Although Tonatiuh cannot attend the play’s premiere due to family obligations, Ramos said RLTC has confirmed that Sylvia Méndez will be present for opening night of the play.

Méndez, the person at the center of Méndez v. Westminster, is the eldest of three children born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father.

"What does this mean? It means she was born a U.S. citizen automatically," Ramos said. "But she was living in California (at that time), so the assumption was that she is Mexican and therefore illegal."

The attitudes of the time toward Mexicans are reflected in one of the illustrations in Tonatiuh’s book, which depicts a public pool with the sign, "No dogs or Mexicans allowed," Ramos remarked.

When the Méndez family moved from Santa Ana, Calif., to Westminster in Orange County to run its own farm, an aunt took Sylvia along with her own children to register them at the nearby public school, Bartalo explained. Since the aunt had a French surname and light skin, she was allowed to register her own children, but not Sylvia, even though Sylvia was proficient in English, he added. Sylvia’s father appealed to the school superintendent, who also refused to admit the child. The superintendent told the father that Sylvia should attend an inferior "Mexican-only" school situated in a bug-infested, rundown clapboard house, Bartalo said.

Against the advice of friends who feared retribution, Sylvia’s father took the matter to the Orange County Court and won, Bartalo explained. The school district appealed. In 1947, the California Supreme Court also ruled in the family’s favor, he said.

Bartalo said he had received Tonatiuh’s book as a gift from his daughter because of his interest in civil rights cases and his longtime career as an educator.

"It bothered me that I didn’t know this story at all," he added. "I jumped out of my chair when I finished reading it. … I couldn’t help reading more (about the case)."

After doing some additional research, he realized he was not alone in his ignorance of the case, which reached California’s highest court seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in all U.S. public schools. Lawyer Philippa Strum outlined the Méndez case in another book and discovered that fellow attorneys also knew little about it, said Bartalo who also is directing the play.

Determined to bring the story to light, Bartalo and Ramos agreed for RLTC to produce the play and make it family friendly. The cast even includes members of a local family. Bartalo and Ramos also will write a curriculum based on the play for use in the Rochester City School District as well as provide copies of Tonatiuh’s book to students, they said.

The omission of this story from U.S. history books is even more staggering, Bartalo said, considering that one of the Méndez’s lawyers was Thurgood Marshall and that the California governor at the time was Earl Warren. Both men eventually served on the U.S. Supreme Court, with Warren becoming chief justice a decade after ruling in favor of Brown in Brown v. Board of Education.

He said this lack of knowledge about the Méndez case in U.S. history may be due in part to the fact that it never reached the Supreme Court and therefore did not get much national exposure. But, Ramos asserted that it also has to do with the way civil rights is framed in national conversation as an issue only affecting blacks and whites.

"Our brown faces are not at all represented," she observed.

In his e-mail, Tonatiuh said the bigger tragedy is that public schools today remain segregated by race and ethnicity because of socioeconomic circumstances.

"The majority of students in poor schools are Latinos or African-Americans, while the majority of students in schools with a lot of resources are white," he said. "While the Méndez family’s struggle occurred 70 years ago, I think similar problems persist in school today. Their struggle is just as relevant today as it was in the 1940s."

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