Authors’ Corner: Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation is the fourth picture book I have written and illustrated. It was published in 2014 by Abrams Books For Young Readers. The book tells the true story of an American girl of Mexican and Puerto-Rican descent who was not allowed to go to a white only school in California in the 1940’s. Segregation of Mexican-American and Latino children was prevalent throughout the Southwest at the time. Sylvia’s family did not think this was fair. Her parents organized a group of parents and then filed a lawsuit that eventually ended segregated schooling in California.

Most people are not familiar with this story. But its a very important piece of American history. Some of the people involved the Mendez case were involved years later in the landmark case, Brown vs Board of Education. The Mendez family truly paved the way for the desegregation of schools in the entire country.

The research for my book comes from several sources. I read books and articles, watched documentaries and I was able to hear Sylvia herself speak on a couple of occasions. She is very kind and I was also able to do some informal interviews with her. I was also able to find court transcripts. Some of the dialogue in the book comes directly from them.

I think Sylvia’s story is very relevant today. Although it is illegal to segregate children in public schools because of their race or background there is a lot of division and a kind of segregation that is happening nowadays. A recent study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA showed that segregation has increased in the last decade. 43% of Latino and 38% African-American children attend schools where less then 10% of the students are white. Latino and African-Americans are twice as likely to be in a school where the majority of children are poor. Therefore their schools tend to have less resources.

The artwork in the book is inspired by Pre-Columbian art. I draw by hand but then I scan the images and collaged them digitally. You can see some of my process and inspiration in these videos: https://youtu.be/5dqFLg22Z_0 and https://youtu.be/HL-op6gx1Mc

The book has been very well received. It won the 2015 Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award and it received honorable mentions from the Pura Belpré Award, the Sibert Award and the Orbis Pictus Award. The Anti-Defamation League created a wonderful Book Discussion Guide for it. You can download it here.

My website has more information about all of my books.

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