Introduction by Richard Arum, Dean of the UCI School of Education
It is my honor to introduce Sylvia Mendez as our commencement speaker. It has been my great privilege to interact with her over this past year and personally to be reminded of the mutual dependence of education and democracy. As William Harper noted more than a century ago, democracy is dependent on the university -- for the university produces the new teachers, artists and scientists that serve it. “It is the university that fights the battle of democracy, its war-cry being: ‘come let us reason together.’”
Sylvia Mendez, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, will share with us today the story of her family’s struggle to secure equal access to California public schools right here in Orange County. Many of you may have read or heard about the 1947 landmark legal case of Mendez vs. Westminster that led to the desegregation of California’s schools and paved the way for Brown vs. the Board of Education. Sylvia Mendez is a living witness to this historic case – a case that reminds us how our opportunities and accomplishments today are dependent on the sacrifices of our families and those that came before us.
Please join me in welcoming and thanking Sylvia Mendez for coming to share her experiences with us.
Commencement Address by Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Sylvia Mendez
I am thrilled to be here participating in the celebration of this momentous, wonderful day with the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, The School of Education, and the School of Physical Science. I am honored to be here with this elite team of faculty, students, parents, and guests. Thank you for the privilege to be part of your graduation.
Of course, we cannot forget that without the dedicated personnel of this university -- professors, mentors, advisors, and deans -- your road to this success would have been harder.
You conquered all obstacles that stood in your way to make this day possible, and I am so proud of you.
You cannot imagine how proud I felt when I knew I would be speaking in front of a student body that resembles the diverse population of our country. This is a very important junction in your life, which will provide you with many opportunities.
You are now ready to embark on a new future, a new beginning, a commencement for many of you. Some of you have been accepted in a different educational program and will continue with your studies; others will begin new career opportunities.
You have achieved many successes to this point and will still achieve many more. I had no idea I would be standing here at 81 years old speaking to all of you about an event that happened in my childhood. I never imagined I would meet President Obama and be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for continuing to share the message of hope. You never know what the future holds and what impact you will have on it.
You are the future leaders of our great country. You will hear this along the way. Do not take it lightly; our country is depending on you and the power you will have to make a difference. Your future lies ahead of you, but it also lies in your past experience. I have learned that our past is a great teacher, and what we have learned about has become our greatest lesson.
When I was eight years old, I was not allowed to go to the school next to our house because of the color of my skin and my last name: Mendez. My parents knew that in this country, everything is possible. My parents taught me the commitment of civil rights. I will never forget the difference between the two schools, the white school and the Mexican school. In Orange County, it was called the Mexican school at the time, but all minorities had to go there, including the Japanese family on 1st street and the African American families. They all had to send their kids to the Mexican school. The “so called” Mexican school was a wooden shack surrounded by a cow pasture. The students ate their lunch outside and flies would come from the dairy, and there was an electric fence that surrounded the cows, and if you touched it, you received a shock. We did not have a playground; it was all dirt. We were taught vocational skills, like how to be maids.
The textbooks were handed down from the white school where they had a manicured lawn, a beautiful concrete building, and a fabulous playground with monkey bars and swings. I thought I would go to that school, never realizing what my parents would fight for. When my family tried to register us for that school, we were turned away because of the color of our skin. My father, Gonzalo Mendez, and his attorney fought for our right to attend this school. In 1947, the lawsuit Mendez vs. Westminster was fought and won, and I was allowed to enter the white school.
When we went to the white school when I was nine, I was confronted by a student who said, “You are a Mexican, you don’t belong here.” I went home crying and my mother reminded me what we were fighting for. I said, “To go to the white school with a beautiful playground?” My mother reminded me that “under God we are all equal, and we all deserve the same quality and equal education.”
And, of course, I went back and returned to integrated schools in Orange County.
Governor Earl Warren integrated California schools seven years before the rest of our country.
I go around the country talking about this case in California to show the nation that if we work together, as everyone did in California with the Mendez case, we can all win! Yes, you are the ones that will bring this nation together, and we will not be divided. You have decided to pursue a future in the areas of the arts, sciences, and education, so you are in fields that will make a positive difference in bringing us together.
On your journey to fulfill your lifelong endeavor, stay focused, have the courage to stand up for your beliefs, have self-integrity, and continue to have determination, commitment, and perseverance.
You have proven that no matter what nationality, ethnic or racial background, economic status, life style, gender, or religious belief, you can do it. Continue to believe in yourself and persevere; never allow anyone to tell you will not succeed.
Be proud of who you are. Please do not be discouraged if you do not see immediate results -- it took me years. The door is opened for you, and you must continue to walk through every opened door you encounter, stand tall and treasure your culture, and, above all, believe that you are the future of the most powerful country in the world, the United States of America. Remember, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
You have proven today you have the intellect to do it all and nothing can stop you from making your dreams a reality. Remember, you never know what impact a small act today can have on the future.
Congratulations class of 2017.