10/14/2011 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2011

Sylvia Méndez, a Champion of Racial Tolerance and Equality in Education

As if it had happened yesterday, Sylvia Mendez recalled that in 1944, when she was only eight years old, she and two of her brothers were victims of one of the greatest humiliations of their lives: being rejected to enter the school only because of their skin color.

"My Aunt Soledad, my dad's sister, went to enroll us and my two cousins at the school on 17th Street in Westminster. But to her surprise, they accepted her two daughters because they were light-skinned and they rejected my siblings and me because we were dark-skinned. My aunt of course left very offended and she went home to tell my dad what had happened. I still remember how she cried," says Mendez, during a recent interview at her home in Fullerton.

This event changed the history of education for the entire country. Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia's father, was an immigrant who was born in Chihuahua, with a strong and willful temperament. Never one to give up, he got together with four Mexican families and in 1945 they sued the city of Los Angeles against school segregation in Orange County.

After an intense legal battle, the court ruled in favor of the Mexican parents on February 18, 1946. Subsequently, the case was used by lawyer Thurgood Marshall to win the historic lawsuit that prohibited racial segregation in American schools in 1954.

For many years the Mendez' family story was forgotten, which broke Sylvia's mother, Felicitas, who became a widow since 1964. "It was very sad for my mom to know that it was not recognized that a group of Mexicans had fought to end school segregation; that is why in 1995, three years before she passed away, she made me promise her that I would fight so that the story be known and to serve as an inspiration."

Since then, Sylvia, who quit her job of 33 years as a nurse to take care of her mother, has devoted her life to keep the promise of spreading their story in various forums, especially in schools to promote racial tolerance and to both students and parents to appreciate the importance of education.

Because Latinos drop out of school the most, Sylvia says that in her speeches, she always emphasizes how important it is for parents to not allow this to continue. "Even if they are very poor, I always ask parents to do the impossible so that their children finish their studies because this is what will allow them to progress," she says.

Her efforts to promote education have been recognized by many, among them President Barack Obama, who on February 14, awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

"She has made it her mission to spread her message of tolerance and opportunity to children of all backgrounds and all walks of life," Obama said during the annual Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, held in the East Room of the White House.

Congresswoman Loretta Sánchez (CA-47) issued the following statement: "Sylvia has worked her entire life to create opportunities for others, crisscrossing the country to give lectures on the importance of educational equality. Her courage and dedication serve as an example and inspiration to us all".

For Sylvia, having received this medal is a further incentive to move forward, "I feel a great sense of pride for this recognition, which is not only for my parents, but for all Latinos who fight for a better education for their children. This is proof that if we fight we will progress. Nothing is impossible," she said with a wide grin.