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.
Students can summarize and illustrate the plot of the story in a storyboard that highlights the exposition and conflict, rising action, climax / turning point, falling action, and resolution. This storyboard shows both Sylvia and Aki's stories side-by-side in a 2x5 grid.
EXPOSITION / CONFLICT
"Where is Aki now? And, why can't I go to Westminster school?"
"There cannot be justice for one unless there is justice for all."
CLIMAX / TURNING POINT
Westminster Main School
GRADUATING CLASS OF 1955
"You did it Dad. You're the one I'm proudest of today."
Sylvia Méndez moved to Westminster, CA to an asparagus farm that her father leased from the Munemitsu family. Sylvia wondered about the little girl who owned the pretty doll hidden in the closet. Sylvia was excited to attend a new school in her neighborhood but when she tried to register, the school told Sylvia and her brothers they must go to a school for Mexican children, much farther away, simply because they are of Mexican descent.
"How am I a threat to national security?My entire world cannot fit into one tiny suitcase."
Sylvia and her brothers attend the "Mexican school" but it is not adequately funded and Sylvia's father believes 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 finally relented and said that the Méndez children could go to Westminster. But, Mr. Méndez refused unless ALL students could attend regardless of race or ethnicity, which the superintendent refused.
"When will be able to see Pop?"
"I'm imprisoned in this camp, being denied my rights as a U.S. citizen, and I have to prove my loyalty?"
The case proceeded and in 1945, 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 was hearing. These racist claims were so hurtful and untrue.
"That's not how I imagined peace would look."
"How can a man swear to tell the truth and then lie like that? Is he right? Is something wrong with me?"
Sylvia's father showed her the importance of fighting for what you believe in. Through it all, the family worked hard on the Munemitsu's farm and always made sure that the rent money went directly to them and not taken by the censors who oversaw 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 treasured the doll that Aki gave to her as a parting gift.
"You have no idea how much I missed her!"
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 paved the way for the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which made segregation illegal throughout the country. When Sylvia graduated high school in 1955, she looked at her classmates of all races and gave thanks to her father for never giving up.
"Even after the internment camps, my father still believed in the American dream. He wanted to help other families save money and start over."
Aki Munemitsu's world is turned upside down on December 7, 1941 when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States and Japan to war. The government forced people of Japanese descent into internment camps. Aki's family could only bring what they could fit into one suitcase. Her father was taken to a separate camp ahead of the family because the government believed (without cause) that he was a threat to national security. Aki didn't get a chance to say goodbye.
The 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. They were forced to live in a shoddy building with dozens of other families only separated by a wool blanket hung from the ceiling. Her brother was given a "loyalty test" that he had to answer and Aki was kept away from her father for years.
Finally, the family was reunited but they were still not allowed to leave the camp. 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 surrendered and the Munemitsu family and other Japanese Americans were finally allowed to leave the camps and return home. Aki's family was lucky to have a home to return to. Others had lost their homes and their livelihoods.
ATOMIC BOMB HITS JAPAN
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.
"I told you I'd keep her safe. Her best friend is Carmencita."
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 the farm so that they could recover their livelihoods. Despite the government's fears, "Not a single Japanese American citizen was found to be disloyal to the United States."
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