Courtesy of the Mendez Family

The Fight for What's Right

Until the 1940s, many Mexican American kids in California weren’t allowed to go to school with White kids. Eightyear- old Sylvia Mendez helped change that

By Spencer Kayden
From the September 2017 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read and determine the theme of a play based on real events about a family that overcame injustice and helped integrate California schools.

Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

Big Idea

In this play, a family stands up for what’s right. As you read, think about why their actions were difficult but important.


N1: The year is 1944.

N2: Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her family have just moved to Westminster, California, from a nearby city.

N3: Sylvia’s father was born in Mexico. Her mother came from Puerto Rico. They are both American citizens.

N1: They’re excited about their new life in Westminster.

N2: But when they experience injustice, the Mendez family takes a stand—and changes the course of history.

Scene 1

N3: Sylvia and her brother Jerome are playing with their cousins, Alice and Virginia.

Aunt Sally: Come, children! We’re going to see your new school.

N1: They arrive at a large brick building surrounded by palm trees and fields of grass.

Sylvia: Wow! The Westminster school is so big!

Jerome: Look at that playground!

N2: They walk down a wide, spotless hallway to the main office.

Aunt Sally: I’m going in to register you for school. Wait for me here.

N3: Aunt Sally enters the main office. Jerome, Sylvia, Alice, and Virginia wait in the hallway.

N1: A few minutes later, Aunt Sally storms out.

Sylvia: What’s going on, Tía?

Aunt Sally: The secretary says you can’t attend this school.

Alice: Why not?

Aunt Sally: She says you have to go to the Mexican school.

Jerome: But we are American. We speak perfect English.

Sylvia: I want to go to the nice school!

Aunt Sally: Don’t worry. It must be a mistake.



Sylvia’s parents, Felícitas and Gonzalo, moved their family to Westminster to run their own asparagus farm. Both had faced years of discrimination as immigrants in America, and they were determined that their children would be treated more fairly.

Scene 2

N3: The next day, Papa visits the principal of the Westminster school. He returns home a short while later, upset.

Papa: It’s not a mistake. He says all Mexican American kids have to go to Hoover Elementary.

Mama: Why?

Papa: I kept asking him that. He just said, “That’s the way it’s done here.”

Aunt Sally: Hoover is much farther away. I heard teachers don’t want to work there.

Papa: This is not acceptable.

Mama: What can we do about it?

Papa: I’m not sure. But a good education is worth fighting for.


Hoover Elementary School 

Scene 3

N1: Sylvia, Jerome, Alice, and Virginia start school at Hoover.

N2: Each morning, the school bus drops them off in front of the Westminster school.

N3: They watch as the White children enter the big, clean building.

N1: Then Sylvia and the other Mexican American kids walk many blocks to Hoover, a small wooden shack surrounded by a cow pasture.

N2: They sit at wobbly desks in a cramped classroom.

N3: The teacher passes out fabric scraps and wood.

N1: The fabric is for the girls to learn to sew. The wood is for the boys to learn to build shelves.

Sylvia (grumpily): I wish we could read books or learn math.

N2: At lunchtime, the children go outside. The smell of cow manure burns their nostrils.

N3: There is no playground, no grass. There are no tables or benches.

N1: Sylvia sits in the dirt eating an apple. Miguel stands over her.

Miguel: Your father wants my parents to sign a petition saying we should go to school with White kids.

Sylvia: So? Everyone knows their school is better.

Miguel: My father could lose his job if he signs.

Sylvia: Well, my father says it’s not fair to make Mexican Americans go to a separate school.

Miguel: He’s going to get everyone in trouble.

Sylvia: I just want to learn what the kids at the Westminster school learn.



In the 1900s, Mexican Americans faced terrible prejudice. Many restaurants, stores, and movie theaters displayed signs like this one.

Scene 4

N2: Mr. Mendez calls a lawyer named David Marcus.

Papa: Mr. Marcus, my children aren’t allowed to attend our local school. They are forced to go to a school that is farther away and not as good because they are Mexican American.

Mr. Marcus: That is discrimination. We can file a lawsuit, and we should get other families involved.

Papa: I’ve talked to people all over town. No one wants to make trouble.

Mr. Marcus: Then you’ve got to find families in other cities. There are 5,000 Mexican American children in this area. Some of their families must be willing to join this fight.

Scene 5

N3: Mama wakes the kids up as the sun rises.

Sylvia (yawning): Why are we getting up so early?

Mama: I need you to help on the farm before school.

Jerome: Where is Papa?

Mama: He is traveling around the county working on the lawsuit.

Sylvia: If we win, will we get to go to that big beautiful school?

Mama: Yes.

N1: Mama and the children start watering the crops.

Jerome: What if the kids at that school don’t like us?

Sylvia: Sometimes they call us names in the park.

Mama: If they don’t like you, it’s because they don’t know you. That’s what prejudice is— when you decide you don’t like a certain group for no good reason.

Jerome: I don’t like eating vegetables. Is that prejudice?

N2: Mama ruffles his hair.

Mama: No, papito, prejudice is about something like people’s skin color or religion.

N3: Sylvia thinks about this.

Scene 6

N1: Mr. Mendez finds four other families to join the lawsuit.

N2: After the first day in court, Mr. Marcus gives the Mendez family an update.

Mr. Marcus: Today, I questioned the superintendent of schools, Mr. Kent.

Papa: What did he say?

Mr. Marcus: Well, first I asked if it’s true that children of Mexican descent must attend Hoover Elementary.

Sylvia: Of course it’s true!

Mr. Marcus: He said that only students who don’t speak English go to Hoover.

Jerome: We speak English!

Mama: No one gave my kids a test to see if they know English.

Sylvia: No one even talked to us!

Mr. Marcus: Mr. Kent said that if the Mexican American children are clean and well-mannered, they can attend the Westminster school.

Sylvia: We have good manners.

Jerome: And we take a bath every time mama tells us to!

Mama: Mr. Kent was clearly lying.

Mr. Marcus: I hope the judge will see that too.

Scene 7

N3: The next week, Sylvia and Jerome put on their finest clothes to go to court.

N1: An education expert is on the witness stand.

Mr. Marcus: Mrs. Hughes, is it helpful for Mexican American children to go to a separate school?

Mrs. Hughes: No. Keeping them separate sends the message that Mexican Americans are inferior. It tells them they are not wanted.

Mr. Marcus: Does going to a separate school help them improve their English skills?

Mrs. Hughes: Absolutely not. The best way to learn English is to be surrounded by others who speak it.

Mr. Marcus: Do you believe that Mexican American children should go to school with White children?

Mrs. Hughes: Yes. But not just for the education.

Mr. Marcus: What do you mean?

Mrs. Hughes: For children to understand and respect each other, they need to spend time together—learning and playing and sharing. That’s the first step to getting rid of prejudice.

N2: Sylvia squeezes Mama’s hand and smiles.



When the Mendez family won their court case in 1946, it inspired similar cases in other states. Eight years later, the U.S. Supreme Court (pictured above) outlawed segregation in public schools throughout the entire country.

Scene 8

N3: Many months later, Sylvia comes home from school and sees her parents with tears in their eyes.

Sylvia: What happened?

Papa: We won the lawsuit!

Mama: The judge said that all children should be treated equally.

N1: Sylvia hugs her parents.

Sylvia: I will study hard and make you proud.


N2: Sylvia went on to graduate from college and became a nurse.

N3: Today, she travels around the country telling her family’s story.

N1: The Mendez trial was one of the first times in the United States that a judge decided it was unfair to segregate children at school.

N2: It paved the way for other children all over America.

Sylvia: It isn’t just about Mexican Americans. It’s about everybody coming together.



In 2011, 65 years after her family’s victory, Sylvia received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of the country’s highest honors—from then President Barack Obama.

This play was originally published in the September 2017 issue.  

Activities (7)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
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Quizzes (2)
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Answer Key (2)

More About the Story


Theme, fluency, domain-specific vocabulary, drawing conclusions, text evidence, inference, key idea, analyzing, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

This historical fiction play, which takes place in the 1940s, tells the true story of a young girl and her family who fought to allow children of Mexican descent to attend school alongside white children in California.


The play is mainly chronological, with a prologue and an epilogue.


The play includes challenging domain-specific vocabulary having to do with the law and civil rights; i.e., petition, discrimination, and witness stand

Knowledge Demands 

Some familiarity with civil rights issues will aid comprehension.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (20 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • Read the headline and subhead with students, and invite them to predict what Sylvia Mendez might have done. Guide students to look at the historical photos and their captions in order. Ask: What story do the photos and captions tell?
  • Project or distribute the domain-specific vocabulary activity to introduce words related to civil rights. Highlighted terms: citizens, injustice, petition, discrimination, lawsuit, prejudice, descent, witness stand, inferior, segregate
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 21 to set a purpose for reading.

2. Reading the Play

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)

Assign parts and read the play aloud as a class.

After reading, discuss the close-reading and critical-thinking questions.

Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes, activity sheet online)

Reread Scene 1. Why does the secretary say Alice and Virginia may go to the Westminster school but Sylvia and Jerome may not? What can you conclude about how the school treats some children? (drawing conclusions) The secretary says Alice and Virginia may go to the school because they have light skin and hair, but Sylvia and Jerome can’t because they have dark skin and hair. You can conclude that the school judges some children on how they look without knowing anything else about them.

In Scene 3, what details show that Mexican American children are treated unfairly? (text evidence) While the white children get dropped off in front of a big, beautiful school, the Mexican American children have to walk many blocks to a small, run-down school with wobbly desks and no playground. They have no opportunity to learn to read books or do math like the white students do. Instead, they learn to sew and to build shelves. 

Reread Sylvia’s and Miguel’s lines in Scene 3. What do they tell you about why the Mendezes’ fight for a good education was difficult? (inference) Their disagreement shows that it was difficult to convince other Mexican American families to join the fight. People feared getting in trouble and possibly losing their jobs.

Reread what Mama tells Sylvia and Jerome about prejudice in Scene 5. How did the boy in the park show prejudice? (key idea) The boy treated Sylvia and Jerome meanly even though he didn’t know anything about them. He decided he didn’t like them because they looked Mexican.

What reason does Mr. Kent give at first for sending children of Mexican descent to Hoover Elementary? What does he say next? What does this reveal about him? (text evidence/analyzing) Mr. Kent first says children attend Hoover if they need to learn English or get extra help. He acts as though he has the children’s interest in mind, even though many don’t need extra help. Then he says Mexican American children need to learn manners and cleanliness, and finally that they are not as smart as white children. These statements reveal his prejudice.

Based on what Mrs. Hughes says in Scene 7, how does having children learn together help everyone? (theme) By going to school together, children get to know each other as individuals. They can learn to understand and respect other people’s backgrounds, and not judge people based on how they look.  

Critical-Thinking Question (activity sheet online)

Why was winning the lawsuit important for the Mendez family? Why was it important for all the children of California? (theme) Winning the lawsuit was important for the Mendez family because it meant Sylvia and Jerome could go to the Westminster school and get a good education. Sylvia went on to college and became a nurse. It was important for all the children of California because it meant they would be treated equally. Non-white students would no longer be sent to schools where they didn’t learn anything, and white students would get to know kids from different backgrounds. 

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Theme

  • Have students complete the theme activity to help them respond to the writing prompt on page 25.

Create a Public Awareness Campaign: Although important, Sylvia Mendez’s story is not as well known as some other civil rights victories. Invite students to design posters or put together a short video to inform others about what Sylvia and her family did.

Listen to an Interview: Play for students a StoryCorps interview between Sylvia Mendez and her younger sister. Find it at

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers
Work with students in a small group to brainstorm words they would use to describe Sylvia. Encourage them to find text evidence to support their choices. Then have them use the words to write a paragraph describing Sylvia.
For Advanced Readers
Go to Storyworks Online to get a copy of our February 2017 play, The Unstoppable Ruby Bridges. Have students read it and then work in pairs to write an imaginary conversation between Ruby and Sylvia about their experiences in helping to integrate a school.
For ELL Students
The highlighted vocabulary may be challenging for English language learners. Before reading, spend time going over the vocabulary activity with them, practicing pronunciation and discussing the meanings. As they read, have them circle other words they don’t know, and go over them together.
For Independent Reading
Read the play with your guided reading groups, focusing on the prompt in the Up Close box on page 21. Ask students to signal when they come across a detail that shows why the family’s actions were difficult but important.