Mendez v. Westminster: One Student’s Research Journey into a Barrier-Breaking Case

Today’s post was written by National Archives Education Specialist Andrea (Ang) Reidell. It’s the first in a four-part series highlighting National History Day (NHD) students across the country who researched historical sources from the National Archives to create award-winning NHD documentaries. Each post will feature a different type of primary source that students used in their NHD projects. Ang spoke with student Natalia Lopez about her research into court records. 

What’s the best strategy for choosing a National History Day topic each year? For Natalia Lopez, it’s passion. She believes that if students are passionate about their topic, they will want to do in-depth research and teach others about the subject. This was definitely the case for Natalia in the creation of her 2020 NHD Senior Individual Documentary, Mendez v. Westminster: Breaking Barriers.

Natalia’s NHD Documentary, Mendez v. Westminster: Breaking Barriers

“I love to learn about my history…my heritage” Natalia said. She has been interested in civil rights for many years, especially the history of the Chicano civil rights movement and court cases. So when she learned last year that the NHD theme was “Breaking Barriers in History” and then heard that Sylvia Mendez was coming to speak at nearby Utah State University, Natalia knew she had her topic: the barrier-breaking court case that Sylvia’s parents Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez brought in 1944, Mendez v. Westminster.

DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives, has dozens of primary source documents available related to the Mendez case. Examples include this Order Setting the Trial Date and select pages from the Trial Transcript

Natalia, who did not know about DocsTeach when she started her research (but wishes she had) says she found the Mendez v. Westminster court documents at the National Archives through “pure luck.” She had started  looking for things related to the case in the National Archives Catalog, but couldn’t initially find what she was looking for. Her advice to students about conducting research at the National Archives – or any archives – is persistence:  “don’t give up the moment you don’t find anything ….sometimes you really have to dig down.” She added that students should also continue doing research after advancing in each level of the competition. 

Court cases, Natalia said, are an important primary source for a National History Day project. “Court cases can have a lot of material in them” she stated. Even students who aren’t studying a specific court case like she was can benefit from keeping court cases in mind when they are doing their research. For example, if a student is studying a movement for change like the Civil Rights Movement, there will be a court case. “You might find something at the District Level or even a Supreme Court case. Each level of a Supreme Court case has earlier decisions that can have a lot of details.”

As glad as Natalia is about the primary sources she found at the National Archives and other places, she is also a great believer in oral histories and live interviews. “You are not always going to find something written. With an interview, you get to ask people directly about their story, and their emotions” and that perspective is very valuable. (You can read more about how Natalia researched and created her documentary in her NHD process paper and bibliography.)

Natalia’s teacher, Gordon Peer, is so proud of the work she has done on her National History Day projects, especially Natalia’s historical sleuthing. He explained that since their school district cannot afford subscription services to legal databases, research can be a challenge for students. “Natalia was able to bird-dog her topic at the National Archives, and thus get free access to the primary sources she needed.” 

Congratulations, Natalia and Mr. Peer, and thank you for taking the time to share Natalia’s documentary and research journey with us! Your thoughts about using court cases from the National Archives will be very helpful to students and teachers conducting National History Day research now. And best of luck to all with NHD this year as you explore “Communication in History!”

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