Who Is Felicitas Mendez? Google Doodle Celebrates Civil Rights Pioneer

Felicitas Mendez, Puerto Rican civil rights pioneer and business owner, is celebrated in today's Google Doodle, on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 in the U.S.

With her husband Gonzalo, Felicitas spearheaded and won the monumental Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit. As a result, in 1946, the U.S. federal court ruled against public school segregation, which happened almost a decade before the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Felicitas Mendez was born Felicita Gómez Martínez on February 5, 1916, in the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico. Her family moved to the American Southwest when Felicitas was a preteen and they eventually joined the Latino community of agricultural workers in Orange County, California.

In 1935, Felicitas married Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican immigrant who worked with her father in the fields, and together, they opened a neighborhood cafe and later managed a successful farm in Westminster.

In 1944, a local public school refused to enroll the Mendez couple's three children based on their ethnicity. But the Mendez family was unwilling to accept the injustice, so Felicitas and Gonzalo fought back.

Gonzalo Mendez and four other parents sued the Westminster school district and several others with the Mendez v. Westminster lawsuit and demanded an end to the segregation of Hispanic students. Felicitas Mendez organized committees to support the case and managed the Mendez farm on her own, bringing in record profits that helped to subsidize the lawsuit.

Then, on February 18, 1946, the federal district court concluded that the school districts had violated the Mexican-American citizens' right to equal protection under the law, ruling in favor of the Mendez family and the other parents.

Felicitas Mendez Google Doodle
Felicitas Mendez, a Puerto Rican civil rights pioneer who successfully sued a Californian school district that refused to enroll her children based on their ethnicity, is celebrated in today's Google Doodle. Google Doodle

The following year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, which paved the way for a law that called for the integration of all California public schools that year. It also paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled the segregation of public schools unconstitutional seven years later.

In interview footage in the behind-the-scenes video of the Google Doodle, Felicitas Mendez said: "I'm proud that at least we had the courage to do it, to fight not for our children, but for the other children, and their children and their children."

In 2011, Mendez's daughter Sylvia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the United States' highest civilian honor—in recognition of her and her parents' role in the Westminster v. Mendez case and her lifelong dedication to civil rights and education that followed.

Sylvia Mendez told Google Doodle: "I am so proud to be the daughter of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez and to have the opportunity to keep the promise I made to my mother. I remember my mother saying to me, 'No one knows about Mendez vs Westminster, how five families fought to end segregation in California. When we all decided to fight, it was not only for you but for all the children.'

"It was that day that I promised my mother I would make sure everyone knew about the fight and Mendez vs Westminster. It became my legacy!"

Emily Barrera, the artist behind the Google Doodle said: "I hope this Doodle sparks interest and makes people want to learn more about Felicitas Mendez and her family's pursuit for equality. There's still a long way to go to achieve equal rights and provide the same opportunities to everyone, but every step counts.

"As we keep pushing forward, we need to keep sharing stories like these from history, to teach about perseverance, acceptance, and to celebrate our differences."

Google Doodle says: "Thank you, Felicitas Mendez and family, for helping to lead the way toward a more just future."