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Showing posts with label Sylvia Mendez. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sylvia Mendez. Show all posts

11.14.2014

Separate is Never Equal (2014)

Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh


"My hope is that this book will help children and young people learn about this important yet little known event in American history," writes Duncan in the afterword. "I also hope that they will see themselves reflected in Sylvia's story and realise that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country."

This true story – subtitled "Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" – takes place in the town of Westminster, California in the 1940's, though it's significance is lasting and growing – from a recent commemorative stamp celebrating the civil rights victory, to Sylvia Mendez being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. And, most pertinently, that great barometer of social consciousness – a picture book.

I've read one other book by Duncan, which I haven't yet reviewed here, and he has a very distinctive style. There's no mistaking one of his books. The characters are flat and appear only at full profile, lips identically pursed, fingers extended, figure-eights for ears. He is nonetheless able to eke quite a bit of expression from those faces. I think my favorite were the children eating their sandwiches in the grounds of Hoover Elementary – "the Mexican school" – each with a halo of five flies above their heads.  Behind them is the school building, the electric fence ("…if you touched it, you received a shock!") and two cows with full udders.


The story concerns the efforts of Sylvia's father – Gonzalo Mendez – to ensure his children receive the best possible education for his children. When enrolling in the public school system, he is told that Sylvia's cousins – who have light skin and long auburn hair and a Mexican father of French descent – are to attend the white school. Sylvia, though she was born in America, is told she must attend the Mexican school, based only on the color of her skin.


The trial sequence is especially well wrought, though maddening when I discovered that the absurd banter between the superintendent and the lawyer was based on actual transcripts of the case.

"How many of the two hundred ninety-two children at the Mexican school are inferior to whites in personal hygiene?

"At least seventy-five percent."

"In what other aspects are they inferior?"


The book does not treat the desegregation as a final victory. Indeed, the story begins with Sylvia – now attending the desegregated school – having a hard time adjusting to the children telling her she should go back to the Mexican school.

"I don't want to go to that school anymore. The kids are mean."

"No sabes que por eso luchamos? Don't you know that is why we fought?"

"According to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angles, across the United States segregation has increased significantly in  recent years," Duncan continues in his afterword. "It reported that 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white."

Sylvia Mendez, then and now.

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