Reviewed by Cristina Silvia Gleason
Years before Brown vs. Board of Education’s monumental ruling ended segregation in American schools, a similar, but lesser known fight for educational equality was brewing in Westminster, California. Sylvia Mendez had been born in the United States to Mexican and Puerto Rican parents and spoke perfect English. She was new in town and eager to enroll alongside her brothers in the beautiful school near her family’s new home. But on enrollment day the family were told that Latino students “cannot attend this school”. “They must go to the Mexican school,” the registration secretary told them. Devastated, Sylvia begins the school year in a rundown shack surrounded by a cow pasture with teachers who didn’t teach. Students were expected to drop out by the eighth grade. And that’s when Sylvia’s parents challenges the system.
Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh tells the true story of Sylvia and her family’s struggle for parity. Using folkloric illustrations and simplistic but emotive language, Tonatiuh eloquently captures the Mexican-American reality of second class citizenship in the 1940s. In this award-winning book, Sylvia and her family, with the help of their lawyer, Mr. Marcus, mobilize other families. They work their way through the often-inflexible legal system, brilliantly introducing young readers to the concept of and need for staunch advocacy. Separate Is Never Equal is a wonderful example of how effective civil-rights children’s literature can be at highlighting what makes America great: people’s ability to persevere and stand up for what is right in the face of injustice and intolerance.
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014
*Read more? Visit Anne Floyd’s review of Separate is Never Equal.
Reviewed by Cristina Silvia Gleason. Cristina is a M.A. candidate in Educational Psychology (CSPP) at the University of Minnesota. Like Sylvia, she is determined to fight for educational equality for all students.