Before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Méndez v. Westminster. The 1947 federal court case challenged segregation in California’s public schools by ending the system of so-called “Mexican schools” for students of Latinx descent, including many who were not, in fact, Mexican: Plaintiff Sylvia Méndez was Mexican and Puerto Rican, and born in the U.S. The case served as a reminder that Anglo supremacy reached far beyond the imagined boundaries of the Jim Crow regime, all the way to the West Coast. It also served as a preview of the later, more famous Supreme Court case, down to some of the very language it contained: Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP, filed an amicus brief for Méndez, which he later reused for his arguments in Brown. The case had a mixed legacy—the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sidestepped broader questions about segregation by affirming that Mexican Americans were legally White, and thus wrongly segregated on the basis of language. But it was a clear salvo in the long battle to undo “separate but equal.” At the center of it was then-8-year-old Sylvia Méndez, whose struggle to attend the elementary school of her own Orange County district is the focus of Salvadoran American playwright Cornelia Cody’s play, a bilingual production from GALA Theater’s Galita line of kid-friendly plays. La llamada de Sylvia Méndez runs Oct. 11 through 22 at GALA Hispanic Theatre. galatheatre.org. $10–$12.
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