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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Remembering Felicítas Gómez Martínez de Méndez: Separate is not equal

Felicítas Gómez Martínez de Méndez and her husband Gonzalo Méndez

By Gregorio Igartúa

When one thinks about the civil rights movement in the nation, cases and personalities come to mind. Indisputably, the name of Dr. Martin Luther King and the case of Brown v Board of Education are among these. Not too many people remember the name of Felícitas Gómez Martínez de Méndez (born Feb. 5, 1916 in Juncos, Puerto Rico) in these pursuits, nor of her Mexican husband, Gonzalo Méndez. Both led an educational civil rights battle to integrate schools in California and end segregation. All legal expenses were paid from the income of a small farm they owned.

Two cases were litigated in federal courts, both were won by them and other members of the class action. Most important to know is that their cases set legal precedent for ending segregation, not only in California, but in the whole nation. The cases were legal precedent to the well known case of Brown v Board of Education (347 US 483, 1954), which revoked Plessy v Ferguson (163 US 537, 1896), which had allowed school segregation throughout our country for years, under the veil of separate but equal.

Briefly, the case facts were related to a member of the Méndez family (daughter Sylvia Méndez), and to other families whose children were turned away from a California public school for whites only. They were forced to register in a school for Mexicans only, segregated from white students, and with a low quality of education. The rejection fueled the parents’ determined legal fight, channeled through a civil rights attorney, in a class action suit won at the district and appeals court levels of the federal court system. The case at the district court level, Méndez v. Westminster, was decided in 1946 (C.D. Cal. 1946-64 F. Supp. 544), and was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947 (161 F2d 774).

The U.S. District Court opinion judicially disposed that a paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children. Thus it was an important legal precedent for ending the enduring de jure segregation in the United States.

Two months after the appeals court opinion, California governor Earl Warren signed a bill ending school segregation in the state, making it the first state to officially desegregate its public schools. Warren later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and would write the opinion in Brown v Board of Education.

The case that integrated schools in California preceded Brown v Board of Education by about eight years and was litigated by lead counsel Thurgood Marshall, who used most of the same arguments from the Méndez case later in Brown v Board of Education. In fact, the Supreme Court adopted many of Marshall’s arguments in the 1954 opinion. Marshall later became an associate U.S. Supreme Court justice.

In 2007, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Méndez v. Westminster.

In 2009, a school was dedicated in New East Los Angeles to Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez. The case was also the basis for the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 to daughter Sylvia Méndez by President Obama.

A good moral compass and perseverance can lead to fundamental changes in our society. They are precisely the values that President Biden and his Department of Justice ignored when confronted by the arguments and principles set forth in the U.S. v Vaello case. Likewise, those exposed in Igartua v U.S. in 2000, where the district court decided that the American citizens of Puerto Rico could vote in presidential elections, but President Clinton ordered his Justice Department to appeal the opinion, which was then revoked. Two million ballots were burned on American soil.

Three million American citizens continue to be under the servitude of a discriminatory denial of government by consent of the governed, notwithstanding Amendment XV of the U.S. Constitution.

Felícitas taught her children that we are all individuals, that we are all human beings, that we are all connected together, and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.

Felícitas’ fight for equality is a human rights example of what can be achieved peacefully and by justice. Let’s celebrate what Felícitas and her husband did. Their fight is in our hearts. Equal rights also in Puerto Rico.

“Porque se puede.”

Gregorio Igartúa is an attorney with a practice in San Juan.

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