Separate Is Never Equal

“Years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez, an eight-year-old girl of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, played an instrumental role in Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark desegregation case of 1946 in California”–

One thought on “Separate Is Never Equal

  1. Charlene K. Endrizzi & Grace Klassen says:

    Charlene Klassen Endrizzi
    Martin, Rosa, Ruby, Frederick and Harriet. I expect these resilient African American workers and activists to be an integral part of classroom conversations. Cesar, Dolores, Roberto, Diego and Sylvia? Why are these valiant Hispanic workers and activists still fairly invisible in our school’s curriculum? Thank you Duncan Tonatiuh for introducing me to Sylvia Mendez, a gutsy third grader whose parents’ struggle in 1947 to desegregate California schools preceded the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case by seven years. Integration continues to be an illusive dream for many minority students, making Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight For Desegregation required reading.
    Grace Klassen
    Charlene, my heart hurt as I read young Sylvia’s story in Separate is Never Equal. The ugly prejudice and painful injustice she suffered from encounters with classmates and school officials evoked painful memories from my past when cruel words stabbed, an experience to which every human can relate. I think thoughtful readers will cringe and recognize the unfairness of shameful discrimination against Sylvia and her siblings. The inherent courage of the Mendez family as they stand tall to act against oppression will echo long after the cover of Tonatiuh’s picture book closes.
    Raising awareness of the fierce fights for equality by courageous activists in America’s history is a responsibility that we teachers owe to diverse children in our classrooms today. I think it is our highest calling. The freedoms that our students currently enjoy, sometimes nonchalantly, were painstakingly earned as this exquisite text by Tonatiuh clearly reveals. The education specialists called to testify in the courtroom by Attorney Marcus stated, “In order to have the people of the United States understand one another it is necessary for them to live together, and the public school is the one mechanism where all the children of all the people go.” As teachers, we have a profound duty to explore this democratic principle with our students. Separate is Never Equal is up to the task.
    Duncan Tonatiuh’s extensive research and first person interviews ground this history of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and drive the narrative that spotlights this milestone legal battle. As the struggle unfolds, readers receive an empathy boost and cheer for young Sylvia as she persists in the face of the oppressive bullying that followed her parents’ struggle against blatant institutionalized prejudice. Their quest for equal educational opportunity for their children culminates with Sylvia’s empowerment and success in ignoring the bullies at her newly integrated school. Students will be inspired to reach for their own potential and realize the profound truth of Mrs. Mendez’ words, “When you fight for justice, others will follow.” As Tonatiuh writes in the Author’s Note, “I hope (readers) will see themselves reflected in Sylvia’s story and realize that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country.” I agree that Separate is Never Equal is a powerful literary treasure that deserves to be added to every classroom library.
    Charlene Klassen Endrizzi
    Grace, this month my efforts to raise preservice teachers’ awareness of social justice issues centered on our African American Read In at a predominantly black school. Surrounded by wealthier districts with more technology, staff and curricular resources, this distressed urban school is living proof of our nation’s continuing failure to offer all children equal educational opportunities. Sharing Sylvia’s story enables teachers in my area and beyond to pose thick questions like, “How do you think Sylvia mustered the courage to become resilient in the face of uncertainty?” “Do you think desegregation is an important goal for schools?” “Why do you think our schools are still not integrated?” “How would you go about offering equal opportunities to all children at school?” Teaching Tolerance magazine provides an additional resource for middle school teachers. A Tale of Two Schools centered on the Mendez v. Westminster School District case can extend conversations with this meaty text into students’ homes. Several author videos featuring Duncan Tonatiuh allow readers to hear his zealous focus: “I get to share things that are important to me like social justice issues.”
    I keep thinking about the sacrifices and risks the Mendez family took not just to improve their lives but the lives of so many Mexican Americans. How did Malala Yousafzai’s and Iqbal Masih’s families become so resilient? Grace, how do you think our family would have endured such a burden? Parallel texts like Cesar: Si, Se Puede by Carmen Bernier-Grand or Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull and Yuyi Morales provide teachers opportunities to discuss the impact of social justice issues unfairly thrust upon families, who chose to endure risks in hopes of achieving a positive social goal.
    Grace Klassen
    Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez by Monica Brown left me cheering for the Chavez and Huerta families. The unique partnership of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez hinges on their powerful commitment to improving the working conditions of farm workers in California during the 1960’s. I remember the sweat and backaches of field work from my own childhood picking berries in British Columbia. Like many of my students here in the San Joaquin Valley, I know first hand the pain of this labor. In my classroom, we prefaced our reading of these parallel life stories by reflecting on a springboard question, “What’s the hardest work you’ve ever done?” Pencils flew across journals because students had a myriad of personal background experiences to share on this topic of work. And as we read how Dolores and Cesar gave their hearts and lives to the fight for the rights of the laborers who provide our nightly dinners, I knew that my students understood the blessing these two activists bestowed upon us all with their relentless quest for justice.
    I used Side by Side in a layered study of workers and activists just before Thanksgiving. The picture book partners well with Alma Flor Ada’s Gathering the Sun, An Alphabet Book in Spanish and English that celebrates both the beauty and the struggle of life in the fields. My students, children of the San Joaquin Valley, confessed that these layered reading experiences altered their perception of the bounty on the Thanksgiving table and enabled them to view their holiday preparations and feasts with fresh appreciation. As we wrote our own “ABC’s of Gratitude,” it was clear that Monica Brown and Alma Flor Ada and now Duncan Tonatiuh accomplished their mission to raise awareness and inspire new thinking about the rights of laborers we sometimes overlook. They truly gift us with their efforts.

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