My abuelitos emigrated to California from the state of Jalisco, Mexico in 1948. Remigio Vázquez was from a small town called Atotonilquillo and was the first in his family to leave the pueblo: he went first to Guadalajara where he met his new wife, Consuelo Mendez, and then across the border to California, where they knew others from the region had gone to find work. My grandparents and my great aunts and uncles—María, Elías, and Josefina—arrived in Carpinteria in the spring, where they lived in a single-room house next to the railroad tracks, which made it easy for them to get to work in the lemon and avocado fields of Central California.
Our family set roots in the United States just one year after the Mendez v. Westminster decision. Those who work intimately with integration policy know that this was the first case to successfully challenge school segregation in federal court. The case challenged four California school districts for segregating Mexican students from white students in their schools, arguing that the separation “resulted in feelings of inferiority” among children of Mexican descent and denied them their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. Then-civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the NAACP supporting the plaintiffs, later employing similar language as lead counsel in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education landmark case. According to the decision by Judge McCormick, “a paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.” Shortly thereafter, California became the first state to officially desegregate its public schools—around when my mother’s eldest siblings first enrolled.
Despite the hard-fought legal victories of civil rights lawyers in Mendez v. Westminster and, most famously, Brown v. Board of Education, efforts to effectively integrate schools—and to exercise the tenets set forth by those precedent-setting decisions—have largely been abandoned in schools across the nation. Indeed, just six decades later, this granddaughter of Mexican immigrants attended school in one of the top ten metro areas with the most extreme segregation of Native American students, and taught in a Title I school that did not have a single white student. On the changing tides and the state of school integration today, my colleague Dr. Stefan Lallinger aptly reflected that “we’ve never truly had integration.”
I chose to work in education policy because I believe that every student deserves access to a high-quality educational experience where they are welcomed with open arms, supported with adequate academic and wraparound services, and challenged to reach their greatest potential. I believe the data that demonstrates children learn best in learning environments that reflect the rich diversity of the world around us. And I believe in the power of collaboration and coalitions to make tangible policy change.
The work of integration is personal for me precisely because segregation has been so prevalent in my family’s experiences—and my own. I know very well the tensions that make this work difficult: How do we enable all students to experience the benefits of diverse learning environments while nurturing Black and brown youth who are rarely reflected in their own curricula, and have historically faced higher suspension and discipline rates in those same environments? As educators, how do we build trust in our own communities to transform educational systems?
The work of integration is personal for me precisely because segregation has been so prevalent in my family’s experiences—and my own.
The Century Foundation’s Bridges Collaborative has demonstrated for years that committed leaders in school districts, charter management organizations, and housing organizations can work together to address these tensions and champion school integration. As a former teacher and a second-generation Mexican-American raised in the Southwest, I offer a unique perspective on this work; I also have so much to learn from my Bridges colleagues, and happily so. We follow in the footsteps of champions for educational equity like Sylvia and Gonzalo Mendez and Thurgood Marshall, as well as our ancestors before us who sacrificed so much—sometimes crossing oceans and borders, like my abuelitos, Consuelo and Remigio. Together, we will turn the tides and deliver on a future where all students can learn in thriving, bountiful, integrated schools.
Header image: Vázquez and Mendez family, Santa Barbara, 1960s. From left to right: Mrs. Morales, Josefina de Mendez, Consuelo Mendez de Vázquez, Remigio Vázquez, and Elías Mendez. Image provided by Alejandra Vázquez Baur with consent from the only living person in this photo, Consuelo Mendez.