Separate is Never Equal: Slyvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Ages 7+ years)

by Duncan Tonatiuh:

This is a story about a little Mexican girl and her family’s fight for equal education rights. The story begins with Sylvia’s experience with a White child being mean to her because she’s Mexican, and she returns home telling her mother that she wants to go back to the Mexican school. Her mother reminds her of the long, hard fight that her family and those that helped them endured so that she, and other children like her, could attend public school with all children. We are taken through each step of the Mendez family’s journey for equal rights, from petitions to the courtroom, and even through an appeal. The book provides a number of examples of how both the systems in place and the individuals within them have been prejudiced against people of color, and why such prejudicial separation is harmful to all children, not just the Mendez family. In the end, Sylvia feels proud of her family’s journey so that she could be a Mexican girl at the public school, and works to ignore such comments and whispers as she experienced at the outset of the story. She finds a number of friends from all kinds of backgrounds, and holds her head high with pride for herself and her community.


Using this book as an educational tool:

Sylvia's story represents an unfortunately common thread for many families of color, struggling for the same rights as their White peers. One way to use this book to help explain racial topics to your children is to address some of the historical examples of stories like Sylvia's during the desegregation movements, or connect it to some of the barriers that still exist today, privileging White people in perhaps less-noticeable ways. This story can also encourage perspective-taking, empathy, and critical thinking. Ask yourself and/or your child these kinds of questions after reading to help facilitate constructive conversation around race

  • How did Sylvia feel being called names by the White child? Was his behavior wrong?

  • What are some of the “reasons” the Mendez family were given as to why their children couldn’t attend school? Do you think these reasons were fair?

  • Even though schools aren’t explicitly segregated today, people of color still face a number of barriers like these to have the same opportunities as people with lighter skin. Talk through some examples with your child, and ask them to consider whether they can think of anything like that in their day-to-day life.