Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Benjamin Johnson

Second Advisor

Monica Pelayo

Third Advisor

Roberta Wollons


The Mendez vs. Westminster school segregation case of 1945 ruled in favor of Mexican American school children in California and their right to attend “white” schools in accordance with their Fourteenth Amendment rights. Five Mexican American families took on four schools districts from the Orange County to court to claim that segregation based on “ancestry” was not a viable reason to separate white and Mexican American school children. This case demonstrates how Mexican Americans and their allies struggled to obtain civil rights in California. The Mendez case shows how race and ethnicity were defined in Californian society in regards to Mexican Americans, particularly in comparison to other marginalized groups and the rest of the country. The debate surrounding Mexican Americans’ identity and place in California’s racial hierarchy was at the center of this case, yet trial documents do not use the word “race,” but rather employ terminology such as “ancestry” and “descent.” This thesis will not only analyze the trial and the arguments used within the case but will show how the role of whiteness and race played a role in a case that blatantly tried to ignore the topic. The specific infrastructure and culture created in California surrounding its marginalized groups was demonstrated throughout the trial through strategies used both by the plaintiffs and defendants. The strategies of both sides focused on Mexican Americans’ intellectual capabilities, hygiene, and bilingualism, all key components for definitions of race both in California and more broadly.


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