For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.
Sylvia Mendez was nine years old when she became the center of the landmark court case, Mendez v. Westminster. Parents and neighbors joined together in a fight to desegregate education for children of Mexican descent in southern California. The 1947 court decision banned segregation in California public schools and paved the way for the national ban on school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education seven years later.
On her first day at school after winning the case, Sylvia recalls a white boy coming up to her and telling her she didn’t belong. She says, “I was crying and crying, and told my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to the white school!’ My mother said, ‘Sylvia, you were in court every day. Don’t you know what we were fighting? We weren’t fighting so you could go to that beautiful white school. We were fighting because you’re equal to that white boy.” (LA Times)
It’s easy to hold up these historic figures as superhuman. It seems they are made of sturdier stuff than us average folk. But Sylvia Mendez was herself a reluctant hero. Her name was on that important decision, but she didn’t feel brave and fierce.
Maybe her connections to her family and her community mattered to her more than the abstract idea of equality. And maybe it was from the strength of those connections that Sylvia drew her sense of purpose.
Sylvia went on to a successful career as a pediatric nurse. For decades, Sylvia didn’t think much about Mendez v. Westminster. Then her father died and her mother became very ill. In a conversation about the case, her mother told her, “It’s history of the United States, history of California. Sylvia, you have to go out and talk about it!” Hesitant at first but guided by her mother’s conviction, Sylvia began vising schools to tell the story of her family’s fight for civil rights.
Since her retirement from nursing, Mendez’ work has grown into a nationwide effort to help students succeed. She sees the de facto segregation that still exists in American education today, particularly in the scarce resources of schools in poor communities and communities of color. She wants all students have the opportunity that she did, and she has dedicated herself to advocating for educational equity.
Behind most hero myths lurks a story of uncertainty, hesitancy, and detours. Something propels (or drags) the protagonist to the path they are meant to walk. Mendez’ connections to her family called her back to courage.
For each of us, such a force exists. Maybe hidden, maybe silent, likely disquieting, most certainly mighty.
In what voice does it call us back?
Do we let it?
Mendez vs. segregation: 70 years later, famed case ‘isn’t just about Mexicans. It’s about everybody coming together’. Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, LA Times, April 17, 2016
The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed. Dave Roos, History.com, September 18, 2019
Who Is Sylvia Mendez? Separate is Never Equal, Sylvia Mendez School
Progressivism is a spectrum; it’s not an ideology following one leader saying one thing. It’s many people who have very wildly diverging opinions about many things. But, as progressives, if we could commit to a general frame of reference that we are about improving the quality of life for a lot more people, we’re about helping working and middle-class people, and we’re about taking care of poor people, we could really make some inroads in political power in this country. But, if we choose to be purists, if we choose to be arguing for a consensus we will never reach, for agreement on every point, it’s never going to happen.―
Temperature pushing 100. Shaking, nauseated, dizzy, and a little green. He sleeps for nearly 13 hours, so motionless at daybreak I have to rustle the blanket to make sure he’s breathing. When I call the school, they tell me Flu B has been making it past the vaccine.
He sleeps on. Sometime after 10am, he creaks out of bed and shuffles to the kitchen with a blanket draped over his shoulders. I am parked at the dining table plodding through cut-rate wifi to VPN into work. As he passes, I look up at his sallow face and ask him how he’s feeling.
“Sick,” he rumbles, his voice dipping even lower than the adolescent tenor which is emerging with increasing frequency these days.
Old shortcuts lead to dead ends. Minor annoyances to major road blocks. Drifting off during the boring parts of class, crumpled papers forgotten in the bottom of the backpack, goofing off in the hallway. D grades. Closed doors.
As he fails, his world shrinks.
Only the first quarter of his first year of middle school, and hard lessons are giving my boy’s psyche a good scraping.
“Would you rather,” he asks me, “never be able to use a public library? Or lose the dog forever?”
“The library,” I say. As long as they exist for everyone else. I could live without them. Besides, my friends could bring me books.”
“Would you rather,” he asks me, “never be able to read a book again? Or lose the dog forever?”
“The dog,” I say. “If she’s going to a good home, I would miss her terribly but she’d be okay.”
“Would you rather,” he asks me, “never be able to read a book again? Or the dog dies?”
“Neither,” I say.
“You have to choose,” he tells me.
“No, I don’t.”
I reject the false choice. No situation in this world demands such a splitting. I claim it all. My love is vast. Like Whitman, I contain multitudes.
On my son’s first birthday, a stomach virus knocked him flat. For the next few days, he couldn’t keep anything down. Even though he begged for the comfort of nursing, I had to ration his time on the breast. We fed him Pedialyte from a dropper. He screamed in protest until thirst overcame his resistance.
After a few days, he rallied. Small portions of pureed food stayed down. Great quantities of breast milk too. He resumed scooting all over the house and tormenting the dog. The doctor had said he’d get over it, and this seemed to hold true.
Except that he kept losing weight.
Tiny glassed domes rising from pores
spill into trails
salting the lips,
Slick and breathless under
a screen flickering
every angle of the terrible cleaving.
inversion, a litter of bodies
in the desert. Children jostled,
fenced camps, a flashback
between camera cuts.
We pretend to miss
One block from home after a Black Lives Matter event, blue strobes flash in the rearview mirror. The irony does not escape me. I bend to pull my wallet from under the seat. Beyond irony, a stunning privilege. I feel around the floor. My hand closes around leather. I pry it out and set it on the passenger seat.
On the eve of the March for our Lives, it’s worth remembering one of the many reasons we have to do this.