The Puerto Rican activist fought against California school segregation during the 1940s.
To mark the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, Google honored Puerto Rican activist Felicitas Méndez with a doodle that illustrates her fight against school segregation in 1940s California.
The activist was born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, on February 5, 1916. As a preteen, she moved to the United States with her family. Her parents were part of the first wave of Hispanic agricultural workers to arrive in California’s Orange county.
In 1935, the activist married Gonzalo Méndez, a Mexican immigrant who worked with her father in the field.
Eventually, they ran a cantina in Santa Ana, California, and were able to lease a 40-acre asparagus farm in Westminster.
In the 1940s, there were only two elementary schools in Westminster. The schools were segregated—Hoover Elementary was a Hispanic school, and the 17th Street Elementary was a white-only school with a better academic program.
Méndez tried to enroll her three children at the 17th Street Elementary School, but they were rejected.
The Méndez family fought back along with four other parents; together they sued the Westminster school district. Mendez v. Westminster demanded to put an end to the segregation of Hispanic students.
The activist managed to pay for lawyer services with money earned from the family farm.
On February 18, 1946, the federal district court concluded that the school district had violated the rights of Mexican American citizens to equal protection under the law, ruling in favor of Méndez and the other parents.
This victory influenced the outcome of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, which determined the racial segregation of children in public schools to be unconstitutional.
Google shared a video of the doodle-making process that includes footage of an interview with Méndez where she expresses satisfaction with the anti-segregation ruling.
“I’m proud that at least we had the courage to do it—to fight not for our children, but for the other children—and their children and their children,” the activist says in the interview.
The Méndez family legacy was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US. The couple’s daughter, Sylvia, received the award in 2011.
The activist died in 1998 in Fullerton, California. She was 82 years old.