Book Review: Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Separate is Never Equal 2

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When her family moved to the town of Westminster, California, young Sylvia Mendez was excited about enrolling in her neighborhood school. But she and her brothers were turned away and told they had to attend the Mexican school instead. Sylvia could not understand why—she was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. Why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend a separate school? Unable to get a satisfactory answer from the school board, the Mendez family decided to take matters into their own hands and organize a lawsuit.

In the end, the Mendez family’s efforts helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across America.

Using his signature illustration style and incorporating his interviews with Sylvia Mendez, as well as information from court files and news accounts, Duncan Tonatiuh tells the inspiring story of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equality.

MY TWO CENTS: Kudos to Duncan Tonatiuh for shining a bright spotlight on a consequential, but often overlooked chapter of American civil rights, and bringing this true story of Latinos fighting for racial justice to young readers. The book features Tonatiuh’s trademark, award-winning illustration and his retelling of the facts.

In the mid-1940s, when the action takes place, Sylvia Mendez is nine years old. She’s the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican-born, naturalized citizen of the United States, and his wife, Felicitas, from Puerto Rico. When the Mendez family moves from Santa Ana, California, to a farming community in Orange County, Sylvia and her brothers are not permitted to enroll in the neighborhood school and are instead sent to a school designated for Mexicans, which is farther from home. Unlike the white children’s school, it’s dirty, crowded and lacks a playground. The students eat lunch outdoors next to a fly-infested cow pasture. To top it off, the teachers seem indifferent, as if Mexican children weren’t worth the bother.

The Mendez family launches a campaign to demand equal education for their children. Sylvia’s father first pursues answers from officials all the way up the line to the board of education, but no one offers a credible explanation. The common refrain is “that is how it is done.” Mr. Mendez organizes members of the Mexican community and hires a lawyer to challenge the discriminatory practices in court. Young Sylvia is in the courtroom during the proceedings, where she hears statements by a school official about the supposedly lice-ridden, inferior nature of Mexicans. It takes two court cases to settle the outcome. The judge’s final ruling states that “public education must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

After Sylvia’s parents successfully face down California’s version of Jim Crow laws, she enrolls in the neighborhood school, shattering longstanding color barriers. In the corresponding page spread, a white boy tells Sylvia, “You don’t belong here,” and Sylvia is shown with a bowed head and a tear sliding down her cheek. Reminded by her mother of the long fight they undertook to win her right to equal schooling, Sylvia perseveres, proving herself as steely as her parents. In the closing pages, she and other brown-skinned children are shown side-by-side with white classmates in the school playground.

Separate is Never Equal spread

Tonatiuh’s account highlights the exemplary character of Mr. and Mrs. Mendez. Every movement for justice has its heroes and pioneers, and the Mendez family richly deserves that level of recognition. Taking up the fight involved considerable personal risk. They used their life savings to kickstart the legal fund. Eventually, they received wider support. Leading the charge took Mr. Mendez away from the farm for long stretches, leaving Mrs. Mendez to perform farming tasks that her husband normally would have handled. As the story shows, many Mexican families in the community declined to join the lawsuit, for fear of economic retribution. “No queremos problemas,” they said.

The California campaign for educational equality, spearheaded by the Mendez case, ultimately led to the 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. The victory illuminated by Separate is Never Equal belongs in a clear line of prominent milestones of American civil rights. How fortunate that someone with Tonatiuh’s skill has brought it out of the shadows.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Beyond the importance of the story, Tonatiuh’s groundbreaking illustrations deserve readers’ attention. His drawings marry childlike innocence with characteristics of ancient Mixtec art. (See my review of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale for a fuller discussion of his style.) In Separate is Never Equal, the illustrations take on the added dimension of historical details from the 20th century. Teachers may want to provide students with photographs from the era to demonstrate how carefully Tonatiuh researched and reproduced clothing, hairstyles, automobile models, and other authenticating markers of the 1940s.

As is generally the case with nonfiction picture books, younger readers will likely need adult guidance to understand sections of the story that deal with legal proceedings and other points of the Mendez’s battle.

This book presents powerful opportunities for teaching empathy and strengthening awareness of the pain that racism inflicts. One scene shows a public swimming pool with a sign stating, “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” Mexican children look longingly through the fence at the white children frolicking in the pool. Teachers can pose discussion questions such as, “Imagine yourself on both sides of the fence. How would you feel in either situation?” Consider comparing Sylvia Mendez’s experiences with those of Ruby Bridges, the young African American girl who integrated New Orleans schools in 1960.

A section in the back of the book includes an author’s note, a glossary, a bibliography and explanatory details about methodology. Much of Tonatiuh’s research came from court documents and extensive interviews with Sylvia Mendez. Glossary entries include a handful of Spanish phrases used in the book and historical terms that round out the context. One example is the origin of “separate but equal,” a phrase plucked from the 1896 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which laid the foundation for decades of Jim Crow laws.

In 2010, Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is interviewed on this video, which highlights points of the story told in the book and shows photographs of her as a child and of the schools in question.

Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh  was born and raised in Mexico. He studied art in the United States. His picture book Pancho Rabbit and The Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale won the 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children’s book award, and two honors for text and illustration from the Pura Belpré Award. Read more about Duncan on his official website.

Book Review: Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

Pancho Rabbit coverBy Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: A young rabbit named Pancho eagerly awaits his papa’s return. Papa Rabbit left two years ago to travel far away north to find work in the great lettuce and carrot fields to earn money for his family. When Papa does not return home on the designated day, Pancho sets out to find him. He packs Papa’s favorite meal—mole, rice and beans, a heap of still-warm tortillas and a jug full of fresh aguamiel—and heads north. He soon meets a coyote, who offers to help Pancho in exchange for some of Papa’s favorite foods. They travel together until the food is gone and the coyote decides he is still hungry…for Pancho!

Award-winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh brings to light the hardship and struggles facing families who seek to make better lives for themselves by illegally crossing the borders.

MY TWO CENTSWho does not love a fable, beautifully told? Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is an allegory of migration, simplified for young children and illustrated with highly original art adapted from the style of Mixtec codices.

The adventure begins when Papa and his migrant companions, Señors Ram and Rooster, fail to return at the appointed time. Pancho sneaks off at night to find him. Perils along the journey provide appropriate levels of tension for early readers, but each danger that Pancho faces has a factual counterpart in the experiences of many undocumented Latino immigrants. First, there is—pardon the expression—a wily coyote who promises to guide Pancho to his father.  Children will instinctively realize that this coyote isn’t a true friend. Plus, physical dangers lurk at every turn—snakes, hunger, thirst, a river crossing, a dark tunnel, and a ride on the roof of a train. Most young children will accept these scary moments as tropes of fable and nothing more, helped by the fact that Tonatiuh softens each danger appropriately. For example, when Pancho nearly loses his balance on the roof of the train, the range of dire consequences implied by a fall will escape a child’s notice.

Pancho is a sturdy soul, driven to press through by his burning desire to reunite with Papa. As time goes by, the coyote demands more food from Pancho—food intended for Papa. This mirrors the exploitative nature of many human coyotes, infamous for charging exorbitant sums for their services and not always delivering on their promises. At last, Pancho and the coyote cross the border and spend the night in a hut. When the coyote discovers that Pancho’s food stores are depleted, things go from bad to very bad. “‘In that case,’ said the coyote, ‘I will roast you in the fire and eat you!’” As Pancho cowers in a corner, the huge shadow of a long-fanged coyote looms over him. Shades of Little Red Riding Hood! Just in time, Papa, Señor Rooster and Señor Ram burst into the hut, and the treacherous coyote runs off into the night.

Why were the returning farm workers delayed? “‘A gang of crows attacked us,’ said Señor Rooster. ‘They took the money and gifts we were bringing back to our families and left us stranded in the desert.’” This introduces yet another parallel to reality, the bandits that prey on defenseless immigrants. Back at the rancho, the welcome fiesta goes off without a hitch. The rabbit children beg their father to never leave them again, but he cannot guarantee it. “‘If it doesn’t rain again next year and if there is no food or work on the rancho, what else can I do?’” The children insist they will go with him, but Mamá has a more practical wish. “‘Let’s hope it rains.’”

No discussion of this book can be complete without delving into the art. In a video linked below, Duncan Tonatiuh explains the origins of his style and how meeting immigrants of Mixtec heritage prompted him to adapt the art for contemporary illustration.

Let’s review a few characteristics of Mixtec art:

  • Strong outlines of external and internal shapes
  • Flat colors within those shapes
  • Faces of humans and animals represented in profile
  • Stylized perspective—rugs, tables, other flat surfaces do not recede in space, but appear vertically placed

All of these characteristics are present in Tonatiuh’s art, along with notable adaptations:

  • Modern settings
  • Elements of collage
  • Textured surfaces, sometimes with photographic fidelity
  • Facial expressions that raise emotional content

To elaborate on facial expressions, take note of how variations in characters’ eyes, ears, lips and posture are used to denote sadness, fear, determination, and joy.

To learn more about ancient Mixtec people and their elaborately illustrated manuscripts, see this site

TEACHING TIPSAn author’s note addresses the human issues allegorized in the story of Pancho Rabbit and the rest of the animal characters. There is also a glossary of Spanish terms.

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is a fable that can be read on two levels. The average young child will relate to it exactly as it appears on the surface—an enchanting story with animal characters that embark on an adventure. Parents and teachers will have to decide how much to reveal to unsuspecting children about the characters’ human counterparts. Children who have firsthand experience or family stories that parallel the perilous journeys of Pancho Rabbit are much more likely to catch the story’s underlying meaning. A wise teacher will take this into account.

Many young children will be fascinated by the art, which is unique among picture books. Since Tonatiuh has incorporated rich textures into the illustrations, kids may enjoy a treasure hunt based on specific textures. Here is a list of those represented: ram’s wool, coyote and rabbit fur, denim and other textiles, dried chiles, wood grain, brick, corrugated metal roofing, prickly cacti, straw matting, gravel, rubber tire, snakeskin, topsoil, and feathers.

Just because it’s a picture book, there’s no reason that Pancho can’t be enjoyed by older kids, especially artistic teens. If they seem reluctant, show them Duncan Tonatiuh’s TED Talk video, “Life on the Other Side,” embedded in his website. Many teens will conclude that he’s a pretty cool dude, one worth emulating. You’ll also find a touching multi-voice poem recorded by fourth-graders in Texas. It models an excellent approach to getting young migrants or second-generation immigrants talking about their experiences and feelings.

THE AUTHORDuncan Tonatiuh was born in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His deep interest in the plight of undocumented immigrants originates in childhood friendships in Mexico and associations he has formed in New York, where he studied art and lives. He is the author-illustrator of other award-winning books, including Diego Rivera: His World and Ours, Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, and a forthcoming book on Sylvia Mendez.

Duncan has earned a chest full of medals and awards for Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, including:

  • Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Honor book 2014
  • New York Public Library’s annual Children’s Books list: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2013
  • Kirkus Best Books of 2013
  • Best Multicultural Children’s Books 2013 (Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature)
  • Notable Children’s Books from ALSC 2014
  • Notable Books for a Global Society Book Award 2014

Immigrant Stories and My Long Night in the ER

Sketch by Lila Quintero Weaver

Image by Lila Quintero Weaver, ©The University of Alabama Press

By Lila Quintero Weaver

I have long been riveted by immigration stories.  These days, my focus has turned to immigration’s impact on Latino children. I was an immigrant child. With my family, I bade farewell to our relatives, native culture and language, and set off into the unknown. Nearly all immigration stories hold these elements in common, but I have a growing preference for reading about journeys that only faintly resemble mine. They expand my understanding of current immigration issues and make me feel more connected to the wider Latino community.

My family emigrated from Argentina in 1961. We landed in Alabama. Latinos were rare in the American South back then, and in our new home the prejudice we encountered was subtle—especially taking into account the intense racial bigotry that vented its full force on African Americans, and which I, for one, was horrified to witness.

Things have changed in the South lately—indeed, across America, as the immigration picture grows ever more complicated. New stories are bound to emerge from these troubled times. My eyes are peeled for them, mostly because of what I’ve seen in my backyard.

The shift in Alabama’s tolerance for outsiders came home to me one summer night in 2005, during a five-hour stretch in the emergency room. Earlier that evening, floaters sprang up in my field of vision. These are sometimes an early warning of retinal separation. The ER physician couldn’t tell me much. He instructed me to see a specialist the next day. Good news: no retinal tear.

Now for the bad news. During those long hours in the waiting room, I caught wind of  heightened anti-Latino sentiment. Out of approximately 60 people seated in the waiting room, fifteen or so were Mexicans or Central Americans. Some spoke no English, and the ER was not prepared. When I overheard halting communication between one Spanish speaker and a flustered triage coordinator, I volunteered to interpret. Soon after that, other Latinos sought my help, including a young couple with a feverish baby. They had returned to the ER a second day in a row and after a long wait, still had not been attended. They feared they were being discriminated against. I checked with the receptionist and managed to resolve their concerns. So it went. My long wait turned into a flash education on the lives of recent immigrants.

As the evening wore on, I overheard white people sitting nearby making snide comments about the Latinos. Some even put on faces of disgust. My heart sank. Alabama had reached a tipping point, I realized. It was no longer the Alabama that my family encountered in 1961, curious about foreigners, but not threatened by us. And by us, I don’t mean that I perceive myself to be a target of revived bigotry. My complexion is too light to draw notice. And my English, correct and unaccented, slips past the radar of most bigots.

But never mind all that. Injustice against anyone offends me, and racial injustice boils my blood.

Alabama’s overall tolerance of brown-skinned people began to crumble in the years that followed my visit to the ER. A recent influx of Hispanic immigrants to the state—the Latino population almost doubled between 2000 and 2010—has stirred the ancient fires of bigotry. I started hearing misinformed grumblings about “illegals” milking public assistance. In the local newspaper, letters to the editor railed against Spanish signage. Recently, a candidate for governor ran on the promise to revert driver’s-license tests to English-only. Meanwhile, farmers, foresters, landscapers, roofers, and other business owners countered that Latino employees demonstrated superior work ethic. We want them here, they said.

Somehow bigotry won out, culminating in the 2011 passage of HB 56, the harshest anti-immigration law in the United States, modeled after legislation in Arizona. Immigrant communities, civil rights activists, and religious and economic sectors around the state raised an outcry before the bill was voted into law, but the legislative body had its mind made up. As a result, thousands of recent immigrants fled the state. Ultimately, federal courts diluted the law and Latinos with strong community ties and business connections returned.  

My alarm over the plight of new immigrants took me on a circuitous route to Latino children’s literature, where I’ve discovered a strong body of immigration stories. As an immigrant, I’m finding familiar ground and fresh exposures. I’m most riveted by the contrasts, and few stories present sharper contrast to my family’s safe passage than the books I’ve been reading lately.

Pancho Rabbit cover

This January, I read La Línea, by Ann Jaramillo, and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, an allegorical picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh. Both deal with the fictional experiences of undocumented immigrants. (Check back soon for corresponding book talks.) The power of these narratives has led me to Enrique’s Journey, a highly acclaimed 2006 nonfiction work by Sonia Nazario that follows the arduous journey of a Honduran teenager through similar territory. In 2013, an adaptation for young readers was released, and that’s the version I’ll discuss in an upcoming book talk.

Recently, The New York Times reported on the scientific connection between reading literary fiction and the development of “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” How does this transformative effect take place? Good literature narrows the gaps that exist between us and the “other.” When a character is well crafted, we don’t have to share everything in common with her to enter her point of view.

Empathy, or at least clearer understanding of the human issues involved, could make a night-to-day difference in our society’s attitude toward new immigrants. Last year, I was pleased to spot a bestselling immigration story, Esperanza Rising, on the official school-designated summer reading shelf of my local Barnes & Noble. I would love to see more immigration titles added to reading lists and classroom settings, especially those that humanize current-day migrants. In fact, if I had one additional wish regarding these books, it’s that parents would read them alongside their children. Call me a dreamer, but I believe a steady consumption of strong immigration stories could help us stem the tide of xenophobia and fortify America’s claim on the proud distinction, “a nation of immigrants.”


And now for some related immigrant stories, told through the power of music. A music video directed by Alex Rivera for Aloe Blacc’s hit song “Wake Me Up,” features actual Latino immigrants reenacting the heartbreak of separation and the joy of reunion. The singer is of Panamanian descent.

Read more in Colorlines, where you’ll find a link to a second Alex Rivera music video on immigrant life, “El Hielo,” sung by La Santa Cecilia.

Congratulations to ALA Youth Media Award Winners and Honor Books

The annual award announcements from the American Library Association at its midwinter meeting is like the Golden Globes-Oscars-Grammys for the kid lit world. This year, we were especially thrilled to see the number of books by and/or for Latin@s on the lists.

Congratulations to all the winners! You can find the full list here. We’re sending out an extra abrazo to the following authors and illustrators:

Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Award honoring a Latino illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience: “Niño Wrestles the World,” written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

Three Belpré Illustrator Honor Books were selected: “Maria Had a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita,” illustrated and written by Angela Dominguez; “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” illustrated and written by Duncan Tonatiuh; and “Tito Puente: Mambo King / Rey del Mambo,” illustrated by Rafael López, written by Monica Brown.


Pura Belpré (Author) Award honoring a Latino writer whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience: “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,” written by Meg Medina.

Three Belpré Author Honor Books were named: “The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist,” written by Margarita Engle; “The Living,” written by Matt de la Peña; and “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.


Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children: “Parrots over Puerto Rico,” written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, and illustrated by Susan L. Roth.

Stonewall Book Award – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award given annually to English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience: “Fat Angie,” written by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo.

William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens: “Charm & Strange,” written by Stephanie Kuehn.