Sylvia & Aki is an award winning, historical fiction novel written in 2015. It tells the true story of an unexpected friendship between Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, who found themselves at the center of two different systems of injustice in the United States in the 1940s. Aki and her family are Japanese Americans who, along with tens of thousands of others, were forced to leave their home and be incarcerated in an internment camp for the duration of World War II. While the Munemitsus were interned, they leased their farm in Westminster, CA to the Mendez family. Sylvia was excited to go to her new school in Westminster, but she and her brothers are all denied admission because of their Mexican heritage. Sylvia's father begins a crusade to end school segregation in California. Author Winifred Conkling beautifully weaves together these two true stories of tremendous courage and fortitude in the face of injustice and racism during this turbulent period in American history.
Sylvia Méndez moved with her family to Westminster, California to an asparagus farm that her father was able to lease from the Munemitsu family. The Munemitsu family were forced to an internment camp at the outbreak of World War II. Sylvia wondered about the little girl who owned the pretty Japanese doll hidden in the closet and felt sorry for their family. At the same time though, she felt grateful for her family to have the opportunity to work on their own farm. Sylvia was also excited to attend her new neighborhood school. However, when the Mendez children went to register, the school secretary turned them away, telling them they have to go to a school much farther away that is specifically for children of Mexican descent. Sylvia and her brothers attend the "Mexican school", but it is not adequately funded and lacks the opportunities available at Westminster school.
Sylvia's father believed keeping his children from the Westminster school was blatant racism. He worked hard with a lawyer to bring a suit against the school district. The superintendent, intimidated by the impending lawsuit, finally relented and said that the Méndez children could go to Westminster. Mr. Méndez refused the offer on the grounds that all children should be allowed to attend, not just his own, regardless of race or ethnicity. He told Sylvia, "There cannot be justice for one unless there is justice for all."
Sylvia's father proceeded with the lawsuit and Gonzalo Méndez v. Westminster School District of Orange County was heard in front of the U.S. District Court in Orange County, California. The school district argued that children of Mexican descent should be separated from white children because of racist beliefs that they were inferior. Sylvia couldn't believe what she heard. These racist claims were so hurtful and untrue. "How can a man swear to tell the truth and then lie like that?, she thought." In 1946, Judge McCormick ruled that "Mexican children in Orange County, CA had the legal right to go to school with white children and that separating students by race suggests inferiority among them where none exists." This case paved the way for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which made segregation illegal throughout the country.
Sylvia's father showed her and her brothers the importance of fighting for what you believe in. Through it all, the Mendez family worked hard on the Munemitsu's farm and always made sure that the rent money went directly to them and was not seized by the censors who checked the mail at the internment camp. When it was time for the Munemitsus to finally return after the war was over, the Méndez family gladly welcomed them home. Sylvia & Aki had formed an unexpected friendship through letters and visits and still keep in touch to this day.
Today there is a school in Orange County named after Sylvia's parents. Sylvia Mendez received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2011. She said her parents always taught her "that we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom."
Aki Munemitsu's world is turned upside down on December 7, 1941 when the Empire of Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States and Japan to war. The U.S. Government forced people of Japanese descent into internment camps, deeming them "threats". Aki's family had only days to prepare to leave and could only bring what they could fit into one suitcase. Her father was even taken to a separate camp because the government believed (without cause) that he was a threat to national security.
The internment camp was a long way from Aki's family's lovely asparagus farm. Poston, Arizona was a desert that was unbearably hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter. The Munemitsu family and tens of thousands of others were forced to live in shoddy buildings with meager rations and no privacy. Because families were forced to leave their homes so quickly, many lost their livelihoods and their homes in addition to their freedom. Internees were given questionnaires or "loyalty tests" to determine how much of a threat they posed. At the same time, eligible men were recruited into the army to sacrifice their lives for the United States while their families were interned in the camps.
In August, 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, instantly killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and poisoning survivors with radiation. Japan soon surrendered and with the war over, the internment camps were closed. Japanese Americans like the Munemitsu family were finally allowed to return home.
Sylvia and Aki were glad to be reunited as they had been pen pals throughout the ordeal. They exchanged their dolls with each other, a Japanese doll for Sylvia and a Mexican doll for Aki. The Mendez family welcomed the Munemitsu family home, where they took back ownership of the asparagus farm.
The Munemitsu family rebuilt their life after the internment and they strived to help others do the same. Mr. Munemitsu gave Japanese Americans who had been interned in the camps jobs on his farm so that they could recover their livelihoods. Aki said, "Even after the internment camps, my father still believed in the American dream. He wanted to help other families save money and start over."
In 1988, the United States government formally apologized and issued reparations to Japanese American survivors of the internment camps. Despite the government's fear that Japanese Americans were a threat to national security, "not a single Japanese American citizen was found to be disloyal to the United States."
Sylvia & Aki is an important story that allows students to understand this difficult chapter in American history through the eyes of children who lived it. Students can empathize with what it was like to show courage in the face of unrelenting racism and injustice and they can see how our shared history impacts us today.
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