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Separate is Never Equal

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Sibert Honor Book; Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor Book; Orbis Pictus Honor
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4197-1054-4
Grades 3 and Up
Book Review
“Go back to the Mexican school! You don’t belong here!” These are the words that greet Sylvia Mendez on her first day at the Westminster school. Seven years before the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, there was Mendez vs. Westminster. Perhaps you’ve never heard of it? Not a surprise. In 1944, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez moved their family to Westminster, California to pursue the American Dream, leasing a farm after years of field work on behalf of others. But when their children went to register at the local elementary school, they were told they must go to the Mexican School, despite the fact that they were U.S. citizens.  So begins the three-year legal battle the family waged against Orange County Schools. They won their case, and it survived an appeal, with the support of many organizations, including the NAACP, the United Latin American Citizens, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, and more. Later that year, California governor, and future Supreme Court justice for Brown vs. Board of Education, Earl Warren signed a law affirming that all children in California would attend the same schools. The Mendez family and their quest for justice is inspirational. Tonatiuh’s signature digitally-rendered collage illustrations portray the strength and tenacity of the Mendez family and their allies. By using only the profile views of those involved, set against clear horizontal lines (ex. brick walls, landscapes, the blue sky and the horizon) Tonatiuh evokes the experience of a stage performance. Back matter includes a lengthy Author’s Note, photographs of the family, a glossary, extensive bibliography, and index. This is a beautiful book to explore issues of school segregation and desegregation, the history of Civil Rights in 20th century America, and the role of children in that effort.
Teaching Ideas & Invitations
Grades 3-5
Children as Forces for Desegregation. Read aloud Separate is Never Equal, and then read aloud Robert Coles’s picture book The Story of Ruby Bridges. Together, as a class, compare and contrast Sylvia’s experiences with Ruby’s experiences. What was similar? What was different?
Listening to Sylvia. Listen to Sylvia talk about her family’s desegregation fight on the website for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recorded in 2011. Have students discuss, write, or draw about how hearing from Sylvia helps to shape their understanding of the book and how it is relevant to their lives.

Author- Illustrator Study. Have students identify the one illustration in the book does not have a strong and clear horizontal line running through the background. Why would this picture, in which the Mendez family arrives in Westminster, be different? Why does Tonatiuh work with diagonal lines instead? Have students discuss the profile illustrations and the use of color in the text, and use this discussion as a springboard into exploring the rest of his work. What motifs appear across his body of work and how do they operate within each text? 

Separate is Never Equal for Anyone. After reading aloud Separate is Never Equal, have your students read Winifred Conkling’s Sylvia and Aki, a historical novel told from the alternating perspectives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu. As Japanese-Americans, Aki and her family were moved by the U.S. government to an internment camp; Sylvia’s family rented their farm. Have your students explore in conversation, writing, and art, how this expanded understanding of Sylvia’s life shapes and informs the significance of Mendez vs. Westminster, and their understanding of civil rights at this point in American history, as World War II is being waged. 
Grades 6-8
Oral Histories on Segregation, Desegregation. After reading aloud Separate is Never Equal, have your students research the topic of school segregation and desegregation in the 20th century. What do senior citizens in your community remember? Place students in pairs, and match them with a senior citizen in your community. As a class, brainstorm research questions that students have about segregation. Do some preliminary research in pairs, and share with the larger group. Next, have each pair develop interview questions. Invite seniors to visit your class, and provide students with time for each pair to interview a senior. Have students compare and contrast their interview findings, conduct more research on school segregation and desegregation, and write a digital class book to share with your local community via the school and public library.
Exploring Latino History in California. Read aloud Separate is Never Equal with your class. Have students write down their observations of the inequities between the Westminster School and the Hoover School. Next, have students read Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munez Ryan, which is set in the Great Depression nine years prior to the year that Sylvia Mendez in her family moved to Westminster from Santa Ana. How does the historical novel help shed light on the experiences of the Mendez family? Have students consider why public officials would attempt to consider Sylvia and her brothers as Mexicans, despite the fact that the children were born in the United States, her father was a Mexican immigrant turned U.S. citizen, and her mother was born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. What conditions persisted to create such an environment? Next, have students read Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope, about Cesar Chavez and his efforts at unionizing farm workers in California. Finally, have students explore digital resources available through the California State Archives and the National Park Service, listed below. Have students create art, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction to demonstrate what they’ve learned about the history of Latino Americans in California.
Examining Brown vs. Board of Education in a New Light. Often, students are taught about the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. But until now, very little material has been available to the general public about Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight for school desegregation. As author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh points out in his extended Author’s Note at the back of the book, two key players in the Mendez fight were instrumental in Brown vs. Board of Education, just seven years later: Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren. If you regularly study this landmark Supreme Court ruling with your students, start your exploration with Mendez vs. Westminster, which clearly laid the legal foundation. How does knowing and understanding this story of school desegregation change your students’ perspective and understanding of what happened in Brown vs. Board of Education?
Exploring Source Material.Conduct a Tree Ring exploration with your students, in which students first read Separate is Never Equal, then explore the source material, and then explore other texts written on the topic. There are not many, since the Mendez trial has historically not received the same attention as later desegregation efforts in the 20th century. Have students explore the source material that Tonatiuh used to research his book, and the final written and illustrated product. In particular, have students take a look at the transcripts of the trial, and how Tonatiuh “shortened and edited” them for “clarity and pacing” (see “About the Text”, page 39). Do students feel that the transcripts have been represented accurately? What else do they find out from reading them, that takes them beyond the book? How do other representations and documentations of Sylvia Mendez’s fight match Tonatiuh’s? In particular, you might want to look at Sylvia Mendez’s website, the Story Corps interview, and the NPR story, “Before Brown vs. Board of Education.”  
Contemporary School Segregation.Break up your students into small groups and have them explore educational inequity in today’s schools. To what extent is inequity driven by family income and local control of public schools? To what extent is inequity driven by race and ethnicity as it is impacted by family income? As a starting point,  utilize some of the digital resources available below. Despite laws preventing segregation, why does it still unofficially exist? How can we work towards author Tonatiuh’s vision, and that of the educational specialists who testified in Mendez vs. Westminster, “to be able to interact and mingle so that prejudices break down, so that we can learn from one another, and so that everyone has a fair shot at success? (Authors Note, p. 36).” Have students write letters to your local paper, or to your local school board, informing them of what they have learned, and what they think needs to happen in your community.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Duncan Tonatiuh’s Website
Sylvia Mendez’s Website
Sylvia and Sandra Mendez on Story Corps
“Before Brown vs. Board of Education” on NPR
Mendez vs. Westminster Case Blog
2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient – Sylvia Mendez’s Speech
US Archives, Mendez vs. Westminster, Orange County, CA
Equal Educational Opportunities, NY Times Topic
PBS, The Supreme Court, Brown vs. Board of Education
National Archive, Teaching with Documents Related to Brown vs. Board of Education
Hispanic Americans, Calisphere, California Cultures, University of California,
History of Mexican Americans in California, National Park Service
Bridges, R. (1999). Through my eyes. New York: Scholastic.
Coles, R. (1995). The story of Ruby Bridges. Ill. by G. Ford. New York: Scholastic.

Conkling, W. (2011). Sylvia and Aki. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.
Krull, K. (2003). Harvesting hope: The story of Cesar Chaves. Ill. by Y. Morales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. I also highly recommend Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling which is based on the true story of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu. Sylvia's family moved into Aki's family's farm when they were sent to a Japanese internment camp. In chapters alternating the viewpoints of both girls, Conkling retells their stories beautifully.

  2. Suzanne, thank you so very much for sharing this title. I'm going to add it to the books listed below. Knowing that the farm they rented was the farm of a Japanese-American family forced into an internment camp is such valuable information! I'm disappointed that this wasn't included in SEPARATE IS NEVER EQUAL. It provides a whole new lens for looking at this book. Thank you for sharing this! I can't wait to read it now.

  3. Suzanne, I also added a teaching idea based on this book. Many thanks!