Many students don’t spare too much thought for projects once they’ve turned them in. That’s probably not the case for Natalia López, whose documentary on a court case preceding Brown v. Board of Education is packed with parallels to issues in the national spotlight.
“My documentaries come through and illustrate that yes, while we have achieved a lot through what we have fought for, we still have to fight today for our rights,” Natalia said.
Natalia’s documentary, “Mendez v. Westminster: Breaking Barriers,” did well in competition, earning a spot in the 2020 Digital Documentary Showcase at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.
Natalia had completed a documentary on Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ruled that racially segregated schooling unconstitutional. When Sylvia Mendez herself visited Utah State University, Natalia jumped at the chance to follow her first film up with one on Mendez v. Westminster, which helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education.
“Hearing her story and the way she told it, it was very inspirational and moving, too, to know that I’m meeting someone who was there, whose family did something that helped us as a country achieve more in our Civil Rights Movement,” Natalia said.
Sylvia Mendez was 8 years old when the court case that bears her family name was decided by the 9th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in 1946. The Mendezes and four other families sued Westminster School District and three other California districts for segregating their children into “schools for Mexicans.”
The 9th Circuit ultimately upheld a ruling that the racial segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law, an opinion echoed seven years later by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.
During Mendez’s visit to Logan, Natalia interviewed her for the documentary, Natalia’s third film. All of Natalia’s documentaries have been about equality in education: Her first was about Brown v. Board of Education, and her second was about the East Los Angeles walkouts. All three films won the Utah History Day individual documentary competition.
Though the two landmark court cases were decided more than half a century ago, Natalia said inequality in education is still a problem today.
“What we’ve eliminated through a lot of these court cases is legal segregation,” Natalia said. “But de-facto segregation mostly occurs as part of living situations, private pressures or communities.”
African-American and Mexican-American families tend to be poorer and live in poorer neighborhoods, and because schools are funded with tax revenue, their schools aren’t as well-funded.
“Actually, there are two schools in California that are named after the Mendez family,” Natalia said. “And those schools have a higher ratio of African American and Latino children. And the reason that is is because a lot of Mexican American families tend to come and live in one area because of how a lot of socioeconomics work. It’s de-facto segregation.”
Adding to those worries lately, many educators worry that the dismissal of in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the gap between underprivileged students and their peers. As instruction continued in students’ homes, factors like internet service and whether a household had adults able to stay home and willing to make sure students completed their schoolwork likely meant that underprivileged students fell further behind.
When it comes to schooling, Natalia said she has had a boost from her parents. Her father, Utah State University Associate Professor Crescencio López-González, helped Natalia find materials for her film so she could “not just narrate a story but narrate a story based on facts,” López-González said.
It’s important to López-González that educators like himself take an active role to help Latinx students with competitions and other opportunities. He estimates he’s helped more than 70 students with research, sometimes traveling with them to present research out of state.
“I never had that opportunity,” López-González said. “I went to school to mainly agricultural high schools, 80 percent Latino. And I remember going to a competition and always losing. But I didn’t know then why I was losing, but it has to do with the type of education a person receives, the teachers that prepare you, and also having someone that is going to support you to travel and go to these places and compete.”
That ability to compete is tied closely with López-González’s idea of what it means to be American.
“For me, the American Dream is not only owning a house, but the American Dream is competing,” López-González said. “It’s having the opportunity to show the United States that we are here to be part of the United States on an equal level.”
Natalia said she tries to use her advantages to help underprivileged students.
“I’m so grateful to my dad and my mom for working so hard to bring me into a middle-class life and I’m very thankful for that,” Natalia said. “What I’m trying to push through with my documentaries is that, why, yes, I have privilege other people don’t, and I’m going to use my privilege to help people, to bring a highlight to these issues.”
López-González said he sees a parallel in the sacrifices Latinos are being asked to make for the economy of today to the wartime-era of Mendez v. Westminster. During World War II, 4.5 million Mexican laborers came to the U.S. under the “bracero” program to keep the economy running as American soldiers shipped out.
“They were the ones that sustained the economy in the 1940s,” López-González said. “At this moment, the similarity is that the Latinos are the ones that are sustaining the economy. You can see it at the plants throughout the nation. The ones that are working at meat plant factories are Latinos. The majority.”
Latino Americans, among other minorities, have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and López-González feels their struggles are too often ignored by the rest of the nation.
“We’re sustaining the economy and we’re paying the price with our bodies,” López-González said. “We’re paying the price with our health. And that’s what, many times, Americans don’t recognize. That we are intrinsically connected to their wellbeing and their status and being a power nation. If it weren’t for us, who? Who would take on these workers’ (labor)?”