Kid Lit Review of “Separate Is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh

Historically, Hispanic children were segregated from Anglo children in many public school districts in the southwestern states. The legal struggle in the courts to rectify that segregation took several interesting turns as it (1) influenced, and (2) was influenced by, the litigation efforts by blacks to end racial segregation in the public schools.

A landmark case in the struggle for equality was Westminster School Dist. of Orange County et al. v. Mendez et al. (161 F.2d 774, 9th Circuit), decided April 14, 1947. This book for children tells that story from the point of view of young Sylvia Mendez.

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Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 to a Mexican immigrant father and a Puerto Rican immigrant mother. When Sylvia was eight, her aunt took her, her siblings, and her nephews and tried to enroll the children in the “whites-only” school because it was superior to the ill-equipped wooden shack for Hispanic students. Sylvia’s aunt was told by school officials that her children, who had light skin, would be permitted to enroll, but that Sylvia and her brothers, who had darker skin and a Hispanic surname, could not enroll.

Sylvia’s father, aided by civil rights attorney David Marcus, began a community movement to file a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts — Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena (now eastern Orange) — on behalf of about 5,000 Hispanic-American school children.

Sylvia Mendez as a child

The trial court found that segregation of Hispanic children violated the 14th Amendment. Tonatiuh reviews why the judge found in favor of the plaintiffs, which I greatly admire: I think it is an excellent practice to treat children with the respect of explaining adult subjects to them, especially in ways they will be able to understand.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the defendant school districts appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs had not stated a federal cause of action; since they were not authorized by California law to segregate the students, they were not acting within their authorized powers “as the state,” and hence were not covered by the 14th amendment. [The author does not go into this much technical detail in his book.] In any event, The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Thereafter, then California Governor Earl Warren signed a law stating that all children in California were allowed to go to school together, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language.

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[Later, when Earl Warren was serving as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, he heard the case Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney, used the arguments developed for Mendez v. Westminster to argue the Brown case. ]

At this point, the story in the book ends, with Sylvia’s mother advising Sylvia that when she returned to the school that initially rejected her, she should hold her head high:

“Looking around, she saw that other children were smiling at her. By the end of the day, she had made a friend. And by the end of the school year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds. She knew that her family had fought for that.”

In the Author’s Note that follows the story, Tonatiuh does mention, again to his great credit, that while the Mendez case applied to de jure segregation, it did not apply to de facto segregation, which has actually increased, because of rigidly segregated residential subdivisions, in a development with similar consequences for African-American students. Today, Latino and black students are more likely than ever to be attending segregated schools, largely a function of the composition of the areas in which they live, which in turn is strongly affected by poverty. See research reported by The Civil Rights Project and researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (now located at UCLA where you can find updates to the Harvard research) here, noting that:

“Latinos, who are fast becoming the largest minority group in the country, attend the most severely segregated schools. Latino segregation has been increasing ever since data was first collected in the 1960s….”

Similarly,Tonatiuh cites a 2013 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reporting that “43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white.”

As the author writes:

“The Mendez family went to court almost seventy years ago, but their fight is relevant today. As the education specialists in the trial argued, the segregation of children creates feelings of superiority in one group and inferiority in another. We need to be able to interact and mingle so that prejudices break down, so that we can learn from one another, and so that evewryone has a fair shot at success.”

Not to mention that schools in poorer districts have a marked dearth of resources and good teachers. The Harvard Civil Rights Project study linked to above finds that “Poverty is linked to lower educational achievement, and racially segregated schools for all groups except whites are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty.”

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That study cites the hostile political environment (and that was in 1999!) observing:

“Forty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” as “inherently unequal,” segregation continues to produce unequal educational opportunities, particularly for low-income minority students. . . . In a time when the country is rapidly growing and becoming more diverse, it is important that the nation’s schools reflect this diversity. The immense gains of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted. As difficult as progress was to achieve, without a strong national policy supportive of desegregation, it is just as easily rolled back.”

Tonatiuh ends by stating his hope that children learn about the background of civil rights and that “this book will help children . . . realize that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country.”

In addition to the Author’s Note, the story is followed by photographs, a glossary, bibliography, and index.

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Tonatiuh, who is also an award-winning illustrator, wrote on the Seven Impossible Things blog about his gorgeous folkloric art work:

“My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.”

The simplicity of the illustrations (which also tell the story without words) offset the details of the much denser text, and thus serve to extend the appropriate age range of this book.

Evaluation: This book gives children an intelligent and well-constructed look at the fight for equal rights, while also showing that the battle rights is not just relevant for African-Americans. With the increase in (overt) nativism spurred by the American presidential fight, the message in this book is all the more important. In addition, the mesmerizing illustrations will teach something about folk art and its ability to convey the truth of a story in spite of its lack of realism. Recommended age group is 7-12.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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2 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Separate Is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This looks like a fantastic book! I love the illustrations too!

  2. This seems great, and I LOVE those illustrations. I’d never heard of this case before reading your post, which makes me feel ashamed of myself!

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