REVIEW: Munemitsu recalls her impactful family history that changed US schools

“The Kindness of Color” by Janice Munemitsu.  

When looking back at how the school system rightfully became more inclusive, people often recognize the Brown v. the Board of Education case. But what some people may not know is that the demand for desegregation was given a voice by five Mexican-American families and the Mendez et al. v. Westminster court case.

With this piece of Orange County history often overlooked, “The Kindness of Color” is a must-read. Written and published in 2021 by Janice Munemitsu, this book follows the intense lives of two families in 1940s Southern California. With a foreword by Sylvia Mendez, the face of the significantly influential Mendez et al. v. Westminster case, this literary work includes photos of the respective families as they grew up and fought for equality and freedom. 

Little did the Munemitsu and Mendez families know that they would eventually work together and change each other’s lives forever.

Mendez et al. v. Westminster took place before the Brown v. Board case, working to change the public school district rulings of segregating children based on the color of their skin.

Orange County’s very own, Munemitsu will be doing a live reading of her memoir on Wednesday in the Multicultural Center on Orange Coast College’s campus at 1 p.m. Munemitsu will break down the story and discuss her own thoughts on the important history. 

The beautifully written book sheds light on the lives of those involved and how each person played a significant role in dismantling the prejudiced school system.

After Mendez’s foreword, Munemitsu details how she found out about her family’s history through a phone call with Sandra Robbie, who was making a documentary on the Mendez case. Munemitsu shares how this story inspired and moved her before delving into the events of the past. Multiple, personalized definitions of “kindness” are presented in each chapter, reiterating how the generosity of others during the 1940s affected people in more ways than one.

“Kindness is… speaking out for the oppressed and standing against injustice, even despite the injustice that you yourself have experienced and endured,” Munemitsu wrote.

The author introduces the Mendez family while also detailing their immigration story, which gives the reader a chance to connect with the aforementioned people. The U.S. is home to many Mexican-American people who have immigrated and faced systemic racism. This story is a representation of their strength and perseverance.

Gonzalo Mendez Sr. moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Westminster in 1919 when he was only 7 years old. There, he went to Seventeenth Street School, the very same one his children, niece and nephew were turned away from, until having to leave to help his family on their farm. Through his work, he made friends with the father of his future wife, Felicitas Gomez. 

Eventually they started their family, which consisted of Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr., Jerome, Sandra and Phillip.

The author uses images of the family to further communicate the beginning of their story, showing how close the Mendez’s were. Courtesy of the family, pictures of Gonzalo and Felicitas after their wedding, their family throughout the years and the Mendez children playing on the Munemitsu farm are all included. This gives the reader a visual of  “a face to the name.”

The author then moves into emotionally heavier territory when depicting how the Munemitsu family, in accordance with Executive Order 9066, was ripped from their home after Seima Munemitsu was arrested for being perceived as a spy.This order was put into effect after the unprovoked bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, calling for the removal of all Japanese-American people from their homes and sent to “relocation centers,” which were actually Japanese internment camps

Order 9066 was wrongly justified by the assumption that all Japanese-Americans were possible spies and threats to national security, which the author calls out as “devastating and unprecedented.” 

In this memoir, Janice Munemitsu articulately details the difficult journeys both families went through and how, through it all, they still had consideration for one another. The book is structured to show the separate histories of both families, bouncing back between the two, until they eventually became intertwined and helped one another. The Munemitsu’s and Mendez’s  came together to fight for justice not just for themselves, but for all of those discriminated against.

Munemitsu continues into the court trial, conveying how the community united and fought for their right to freedom, equality and education. Both families faced similar experiences despite being from different backgrounds, and yet they helped each other persevere in the face of unjust, racial bias. This story, written in a more informative style, is one that illustrates faith, hope, pride and above all, kindness between people.

More about this novel and case can be found on “The Kindness of Color” website

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