July 2011

California dreamin’ for equality

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In this bittersweet story based on actual events, Mexican-American Sylvia Mendez and Japanese-American Aki Munemitsu share a bedroom in Orange County, California, from 1942 to 1945. Well, sort of. After Aki’s father, who’s considered a threat to national security, is taken away and Aki, her mother and her brother are sent to an internment camp in Arizona, the Mendez family leases the Munemitsu asparagus farm in California.

In alternating chapters, the girls express their confusion and frustration when they are denied basic freedoms. Sylvia, eager to start third grade in a school with new textbooks, is told that she must attend the Mexican school, which is further away, only prepares students for menial jobs and gives them out-of-date, hand-me-down textbooks and scarred, secondhand desks. Meanwhile, Aki and her family must cope with meager housing and supplies and an almost three-year separation from Aki’s father.

Despite their physical distance, both girls share a love for dolls and develop a friendship via letters. And despite their different ancestries, both families share a common goal: equality. As Aki’s brother must decide if he can serve in the military of a country that doesn’t recognize him as an American, Sylvia’s father sues the local school system on March 2, 1945, for her right to attend the closer white school. Author Winifred Conkling used court records from the real-life case to include some of the courtroom dialogue, almost verbatim.

Although the story ends with the return of Aki’s family to their farmhouse, an enlightening afterword explains how history unfolded. Conkling provides photos of the real Sylvia and Aki and information about Japanese internment camps, but perhaps the most profound element is the record of the Mendez lawsuit, which not only inspired the end of school segregation in California in 1947, but influenced the landmark lawsuit Brown v. Board of Education, which made school segregation illegal nationwide in 1954. Change and friendship may start small, but their impact can be far-reaching.

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