For our October Reading into History Book Club , we are celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month and discussing Sylvia & Aki. We had a chance to speak with author Winifred Conkling to discuss the book, the true story of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two third graders living in California during World War II. When Aki’s family is forced to leave their home in Westminster, CA, for an internment camp in Arizona, Sylvia and her family move into the farmhouse. In her new town, Sylvia becomes the center of a landmark legal case that desegregated schools for Latinx children. Still have more questions after reading? Join us on October 18 via Zoom and meet author Winifred Conkling for yourself!
How did you come across Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu? What about their stories resonated with or inspired you?
I learned about Sylvia’s story when I was listening to the car radio while running errands in 2004. In an NPR story about the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—the Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools nationwide—the reporter mentioned the lawsuit brought by Sylvia’s father. Sylvia was interviewed, and she discussed sitting in the courtroom and hearing the superintendent of schools testify that the Mexican American students were dirty and ignorant. I was appalled; I cringed when I thought of how hurtful that must have been for her. I actually pulled my car over on the side of the road and started writing notes on the back of a napkin. When I got home, I started doing research. I looked up her number and called Sylvia and asked if I could work with her to share her story with young readers.
How did you approach the research process? What primary sources were the biggest help to your writing and did you face any roadblocks?
My first step was to reach out to Sylvia and make sure she was comfortable working with me. I felt strongly that this was Sylvia’s story, and she had the right to tell it her own way. Fortunately, she was willing to allow me to help write her story.
Have you met either Sylvia Mendez or Aki Munemitsu? Where are they now? Was there anything from your discussions with them which startled, surprised, or inspired you?
I did! I interviewed both Sylvia and Aki on the phone, and I made a trip to California to speak with them in person. Although the farm was sold decades ago, both Sylvia and Aki still live in the same general area. When I met them, I was surprised at how humble they were. Both families had played a crucial role in the desegregation of schools across California and beyond, yet their families didn’t talk about the case very much.
Did you take any creative license during the writing process or did you stay truthful to Sylvia and Aki’s stories? Had you written a story based on true events before?
If Sylvia & Aki were a movie, the tag line would read “based on a true story.” The basic facts are true, but the work is historical fiction. Most of the dialogue is based on what Sylvia and Aki remember, but it wasn’t recorded at the time. (One exception is the dialogue in the courtroom scene, which is, in fact, based on the transcript of the hearing.) In addition, there is one member of Aki’s family who did not want to be included in the book, so out of respect for her, she is not mentioned.
What did you find most interesting about this particular chapter in U.S. history and what connections, if any, do you see between school desegregation and Japanese American internment besides these two young girls? What can we learn from Sylvia and Aki about fighting against adversity and discrimination today?
Both Sylvia and Aki faced broad, systemic discrimination. Rather than complain about it, both of their families worked to peacefully make the situation better. Aki’s family worked with the banker to find a family to lease the land. After the war, they gave other Japanese American families a chance to work on the farm and get a new start. Sylvia’s family used their resources to hire a lawyer and challenge the legal system. When Sylvia’s father was told his children could go to the school for white children, he refused, explaining that he filed the lawsuit for all 5,000 Mexican American children in Orange County, CA. He could have taken the easy way out, but he knew he had a chance to help more children.
What do you most hope young readers take away from this story?
It is possible for positive change to arise from painful situations. Discrimination is wrong and painful, but the Mendez lawsuit shows us that it is possible to use the system to change the system.