Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Updated: Jan 30

Read + Discuss

Picture Book Lesson Plan


Separate Is Never Equal (1)
Download PDF • 947KB

Download PDF


This lesson is a guided reading experience designed to accompany Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Lesson content was written by Sofia Martinez-Mannen as part of her work in the Social Justice in K12 Education course at Portland State University and was designed to start or deepen anti-bias conversations in families and other learning communities.


Separate Is Never Equal read by Principal Alma Renteria from Rivera Elementary School


This book follows a young Mexican-American girl, Sylvia, as she starts her first day at a new school in Westminster, California with classmates that don’t look like her. The book describes the challenges that Sylvia and her family faced in being allowed to go to that school, instead of the Mexican school down the road. Sylvia’s parents refused to allow their children to go to the Mexican school because, although the school district said it was, the Mexican school was not of equal quality as the white school. Her parents filed a lawsuit against the Westminster school district so that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language background, would be allowed to go to the same school and not be kept separate in unequal schools.

This book is based on an actual case, Mendez v. Westminster (1947), in which the Mendez family, along with other Mexican and Latinx families in the area, fought for the rights of their children to attend the same school as the white students. At the time, schools were still segregated by race and Latinx students would be sent to “Mexican schools” because it was believed that they were inferior to white students and would negatively impact the learning of those white students if they were in the same building. The Mendez case, along with many others, was a landmark case in the fight for desegregation that happened before the more well-known Brown v. Board of Education case. This book is a great starting point in the discussion of segregation and fair treatment, as well as being a good starting point for those interested in learning about the legal side of these issues.


This guided reading lesson is designed to be part of a larger life-long commitment to anti-racist teaching and learning for the student and the facilitator. Reading Is Resistance sees reading as an opportunity to seed deeper conversations and opportunities for action around racial equity in our communities. We hold the belief that being anti-racist is a process of learning (and unlearning) over time.

The Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards (focused on Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action) serve as guides for our work.


The Teaching Tolerance Standards and Domains referenced in this lesson are for Grades 3-5. This book, however, can be used with a wide range of ages. Domains featured in this lesson are as follows:


Domain #9

I feel connected to other people and know how to talk, work and play with others even when we are different or when we disagree.


Domain #13

I know that words, behaviors, rules and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.


Domain #15

I know about the actions of people and groups who have worked throughout history to bring more justice and fairness to the world.


Domain #20 I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals.



  • Do you know what segregation is? How would you define segregation? JUSTICE DOMAIN #13

  • What do you know about segregation and how it impacted, and continues to impact, people in the United States? Who does it impact and what does it look like? JUSTICE DOMAIN #13


  • Do you still think the same things about segregation? Did you learn something new about who it impacts and what it looks like? JUSTICE DOMAIN #13

  • How would you feel if you weren’t allowed to go to a school because of how you look or because of how people assumed you speak? JUSTICE DOMAIN #13

  • Do you think it is fair to make judgements about people without getting to know them or asking them about themselves? DIVERSITY DOMAIN #9

  • Would you feel a little scared to start at a new school where you didn’t know anyone and no one looked like you? What would you do if you were in Sylvia’s shoes? DIVERSITY DOMAIN #9

  • How can you help to make your school a more accepting and welcoming place to students who are treated unfairly? Who can you talk to in order to find solutions to problems you see? ACTION DOMAIN #20 & JUSTICE DOMAIN #15


Resource for Identifying Landmark Desegregation Cases (website)

  • Some cases to start with: Alvarez v. Lemon Grove (1931), Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1970), Brown v. Board of Education (1951), Santamaria v. Dallas ISD (2006)Research other desegregation cases and how they are the same and different from the Mendez v. Westminster case.

  • Create a timeline of important school desegregation cases to have a more visual depiction of that history, keeping in mind that segregation continues to happen even if there aren’t major cases about it.

  • Create a diagram to compare and contrast the various cases and their similarities and differences.



Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh

A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Be Bold! Be Brave! by Naibe Reynoso

Be the first to receive updates and resources
  • Facebook logo
  • Instagram logo