March 26, 2015
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Separate is Never Equal:
Sylvia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers
The first day of school doesn’t go as Sylvia hoped. Instead of being greeted by new friends, she is told to go away. “Go back to the Mexican school where you belong!”
When we discuss race and segregation in the US, we think of it as a black vs white issue. We tend to forget that there were a lot of different people here all experiencing similar things and fighting similar fights.
Sylvia and her family move to Santa Ana. When time comes to start school, they are in for a surprise. Her light-skinned cousins are welcome to enroll in the school closest to home, but not Sylvia and her siblings. They are too dark, too Mexican.
Unlike the spacious, clean school near home, the Mexican school is in the middle of a cow-filled pasture. The teachers weren’t very concerned about educating their young charges. Why bother? They’d all drop out by the 8th grade to join their parents in the fields.
But Sylvia’s family demands more and they go to court to get it.
I have to admit that this is a story I didn’t know. I suspected it was out there but I didn’t know the when or the who. I’m in debt to Duncan Tonatiuh for bringing it to my attention.
This isn’t a book for preschoolers but early grade school with a slightly older, fact-filled text. The illustrations were hand drawn before being digitally colored and collaged. The detail that grabbed me? The characters’ ears. It is clear that Tonatiuh draws inspiration from ancient Mexican art. And why not? This is an amazing Mexican-American story, a story that needs to be told.
Add this to your classroom library and bring it out when discussing desegregation with older readers.