Separate is Never Equal

Duncan Tonatiuh’s books are well received, winning various awards. A Mexican-American author and artist, his illustrations have a unique style that celebrates his heritage. The content of his books draws from Mexican-American history and culture, from biographies to legends.

In Separate is Never Equal, Tonatiuh presents the story of the Mendez family, focusing on daughter Sylvia. After moving to Westminster, California, the Mendez children attended public school, only to be told that they needed to go to the Mexican school instead. The Mendez family was infuriated, and rightfully so. Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo, was from Mexico, but had become a U. S. citizen. Her mother, Felícitas, was from the U. S. territory, Puerto Rico. The children were U. S. citizens and spoke perfect English.

The Mendez family filed a lawsuit against the Westminster schools. The court ruled in favor of the Mendez family, which led to the desegregation of schools in California, seven years before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case desegregated schools in the entire country.

I found this story riveting. I was somewhat embarrassed that I knew absolutely nothing about the Mendez case before reading this book. The case paved the way for similar lawsuits and led to awareness for racial equality, so why do we not teach our students about it?

I highly recommend this picture book for ages 6-10, though I think even younger children may be captivated by the illustrations, and older students will be interested in reading a little known piece of history. Separate is Never Equal would be a wonderful addition for any study on U. S. History or in discussion of current events and the fight for racial equality. The biographical matter, family photographs, bibliography, and glossary at the back of the book make it easy for students to dig a little deeper to learn more about the Mendez family.

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