Boyle Heights students honor their school’s namesake

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Mendez High School students Kimberly Espinoza and Ashley Lopez are among the contributors to “We Are Alive When We Speak for Justice”

Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights is a living history lesson for the kids who attend it. Students learn about the Mendez family in Orange County, and their successful 1946 challenge to end segregation after their children were refused the right to attend their neighborhood school because of the color of their skin. The Mendez case set the stage for the more familiar landmark Brown vs Board of Education, which mandated an end to “separate but equal” schools nationally.

This past school year, history teacher Benjamin De Leon did more than instruct his students about this important milestone in California history that gives their school its name. Along with coaches at the youth literacy nonprofit 826LA, De Leon helped students write a book about it.

Student Ashley Lopez, a rising senior, said that at first it was painful for her and her fellow classmates to process their feelings about segregation. Writing down their feelings helped.  She chose, in the end, to write fiction, from the perspective of a boy, in her piece Through His Eyes:

“As long as we were brown, or ‘beaners’ as they would call us, we were never going to be treated equally. That really broke my heart. Honestly, what is their problem with people of color? I mean how bad can we be? We’re just like them, just different colors. Shouldn’t we be treated equally? We’re humans too. It wasn’t like we are some diseased animal spreading out a virus.”

Fellow student author Kimberly Espinoza said she was surprised to learn that kids of Mexican-American descent had faced discrimination long ago. She contributed fiction, too–a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. A wide range of insights and approaches by a total of 57 students makes up the book, “We Are Alive When We Speak for Justice.” You can read excerpts here.  And you can buy it here.

Mendez HS in Boyle Heights is one of two schools in the state named for the family that pioneered racial equality in California
Mendez High School in Boyle Heights is one of two schools in the state named for the family that pioneered racial equality in California (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)