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‘Grown-ish’ Star Francia Raisa to Shed Light on Landmark School Segregation Case

This movie aims to tackle the harsh realities of educational inequality through the lens of a vital, if lesser-known, 1947 civil rights case.
Francia Raisa Cutting Edge
By  · Published on November 19th, 2018

In 2018, school segregation continues to regularly reappear as a hot-button issue. A boiling point of potential crisis grows ever-near as schools, be they public or charter, show signs of segregation via residential and class gerrymandering.

Such a stark reemergence of educational inequality has been an eerily consistent problem in America for years. Unfortunately, it’s all occurring despite the country’s critical ruling of Brown v. Board of Education more than 60 years ago. The court presiding over that landmark case unanimously deemed it unconstitutional to separate black and white students across public schools on the grounds of race in 1954.

But even before Brown v. Board of Education, there was a different instance of case law that highlights this very problem, most specifically among the Latinx population. This case — Mendez v. Westminster — is now being turned into a new narrative feature project for the first time. Variety announced that Francia Raisa of Grown-ish fame is teaming up with 13 Reasons Why executive producer Mandy Teefey to adapt this key 1947 case for the big screen.

Mendez v. Westminster is especially noteworthy as it is the first case to hold school segregation unconstitutional in and of itself. It involves five Mexican-American families who challenged California’s District Court over the right for Latinx children to attend desegregated schools. Five fathers at the center of this case — Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Gonzalo Mendez, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez — stepped up with allegations that their children, as well as 5000 others of Hispanic-American ancestry, were being forced into educational facilities specifically demarcated by language and race throughout various school districts in Orange County.

During the 1940s, communities in Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modena had to contend with discriminatory practices forcing Latinx children into all-Mexican schools on the basis that they were apparently more proficient in Spanish than English. However, language aptitude was barely taken into actual account, with Mexican school kids being segregated regardless. When the Mendez family, in particular, tried enrolling their three children in a school with better facilities in the Westminster Elementary School District, they were disallowed to do so on the “grounds” of their children being dark-skinned and having a Hispanic last name.

The Mendezes then dedicated their time and energy to spearhead a movement to shift perspectives in the Californian public school system. Their battle would have rippling effects over segregation laws in the United States years down the line. For instance, although the judge presiding over the initial lawsuit ruled in favor of Mendez and the other plaintiffs, the district did attempt to appeal. Several organizations — namely the ACLU, American Jewish Congress, Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP — showed solidarity for the Mexican families, joining them as amicus curiae during the appellate case.

Although Mendez v. Westminster was a comparably smaller-scale case against the game-changing Supreme Court victory of Brown v. Board of Education, it was pivotal for many of the key legal figures involved in the latter case. American lawyer and eventual Supreme Justice Thurgood Marshall participated in the Mendez v. Westminster appeal on behalf of the NAACP and would go on to successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education in favor of desegregation.

Clearly, Mendez v. Westminster is not a trifling matter to be swept under the rug. In fact, there have been numerous cultural milestones in celebration of the case. This includes the US Postal Service’s honorary 2007 Mendez v. Westminster stamp, which memorializes the influential ruling’s 60th anniversary. President Barack Obama awarded Sylvia Mendez, daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for her work as a civil rights activist.

That said, apart from the Emmy-winning 2003 documentary titled Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children/Para Todos los Niños, the case is in dire need to re-emerge on screens everywhere, if only to give it more exposure. This will thankfully happen with Raisa and Teefey’s concerted efforts to shine a light on this significant moment in history. The best part is that they have even gotten the Mendez family’s blessing as they embark on their artistic venture. The duo affirms:

“We are so honored that the Mendez family has entrusted us with the opportunity to tell their story. Mendez v. Westminster deserves wide recognition for their fight against segregated schools and the equal treatment of Mexican-American students, and we are proud to help showcase this moment that has been bypassed in history.”

The Mendezes released a statement of their own, proclaiming that despite previous skepticism about backing any feature adaptation of their life story, they are on board with Raisa and Teefey’s vision. Importantly, the former is also bound to put a personal touch to the proceedings as she notes in Variety’s piece that, “It’s a very personal story for me because I was turned away from kindergarten when I was five because I could not speak English.” And for context, Raisa only turned 30 a few months ago.

That’s just a single example of how much segregation remains an issue. Thus, so much about a Mendez v. Westminster film rings true as something vital in today’s media and political landscape. This needs to be made.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)