BOOK REVIEW: Separate Is Never Equal, as true today as in 1944

Separate Is Never EqualSeparate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation tells about an important court victory against segregated schools in California, a story about which most people are unaware, and that occurred a decade before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Case. When Sylvia Mendez and her family moved from Santa Ana, California to Westminster, in 1944, the local public school would not allow her or her brothers to enroll, instead directing them to Hoover Elementary, the Mexican school Her father met with officials but none were able to give him a better reason than that was how thing had always been done. The Mexican school facilities were poor, in a small and dirty clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture.

Mr. Mendez tried to organize other parents through his group, “The Parents’ Association of Mexican-American Children,” but no one would sign his petition for fear they would lose their jobs on the farms owned by white families. Then, Mr. Mendez learned about David Marcus, a lawyer who helped integrate the public pool in San Bernardino. While Mr. Mendez and Mr. Marcus toured Orange County for families who would join the fight, Mrs. Mendez managed the farm. The men’s efforts were successful, and three other families agreed to join a lawsuit.

The Garden Grove school district superintendent testified at the trial that Mexican children were enrolled in Hoover Elementary because they lacked English language skills and needed to improve their social behavior, including personal hygiene. He claimed that Mexicans were inferior to whites “in their economic outlook, in their clothing, and in their ability to take part in the activities of the school.” Mr. Marcus’s case derailed Mr. Kent’s arguments, but Judge Paul McCormick took almost a year to deliver his decision: he struck down segregation in the county!

The school district appealed, and organizations across the country provided support, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, and more. The support from such diverse people surprised Sylvia, but her mother told her, “When you fight for justice, others will follow.” In April, the judges of the appeals court ruled in favor of the Mexican families and in June, California’s governor signed a law integrating schools.

Being one of the first students to integrate the local school wasn’t easy for Sylvia–she was teased and insulted–but her mother encouraged her and by the end of the year, she fit in.

In an author’s note, Duncan Tonatiuh notes that segregation has been on the rise. A 2012 study found that 43% of Latino students and 38% of black students attended schools were fewer than 10% of their classmates were white. A recent Newsweek article proclaimed that “School Segregation in America Is As Bad Today As It Was in the 1960s” (segregation being correlated with if not caused by economic segregation.) While segregation doesn’t surprise me, the extent of it is shocking, and with the nationalist and racist attitudes so prevalent in United States politics, the problem can only get worse.

Segregation is incredibly destructive to students in minority-dominated schools. The Cost of Segregation, a report by the Urban Institute, in a case study of Chicago, linked lower income levels, reduced educational attainment, and even the homicide rate among blacks to segregation. Combined, these effects hurt everyone in a community, not just minorities. Remedying this calamity requires changes not just in educational policy but in housing, development, and social services.

Because of the pressing need for change, Separate Is Never Equal is important not just because it tells a underrepresented story. It also brings awareness to the issue for young readers and their guardians. The book is well-researched and show’s a child’s perspective of complicated legal proceedings, highlighting the unfairness of the segregation policy. It seems the illustrations are inspired by Aztec art, without the violence, of course!

Aztec Art Collage

I was less happy with the writing style itself. It was very dry and while it was from Sylvia’s perspective, didn’t have the characteristics that to me define children’s books (grades 1 to 4 according to the School Library Journal and 2 to 5 according to Booklist): it wasn’t engaging, or lyrical, or have the callbacks and repetitions that capture children’s interest. At the same time, diversity is so needed in children’s books, and this story needs to be disseminated.