1925 – 1996
Inspirational leader and advocate for social justice
From her humble beginnings as the daughter of a single mother, raised in Los Angeles in the heart of an economic depression, Margarita Mendez went on to become one of the most influential social workers in the state of California. Her legacy is multifaceted. She was a tireless advocate for the rights of children and families, and a fighter against all forms of social injustice. She was a pioneer in giving voice to the special place of Mexican-Americans and all Latinos in the history, culture, and economy of California. She was instrumental in founding a number of community organizations and social services that will, for many years into the future, serve the needs of youth and families in the Latino community.
Mendez was a leader in the mental health profession. Always respectful of the people she served, she pioneered a practice based on client strengths and cultural diversity. Throughout her career she also taught hundreds of social work students as a classroom and fieldwork instructor at Immaculate Heart College, University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles, and California State University, Long Beach. She inspired them and served as a role model and mentor for young Latino and Latina social work professionals. She was a skilled administrator and the first Latina to hold the position of District Mental Health Chief for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Mendez earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations in 1946 from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1950 she completed a Masters of Social Work degree at the University of Southern California. She spearheaded the founding of California State University, Los Angeles, and later taught in that program.
Her impact on the community continued after her retirement in 1987. She was co-founder of a number of groups that promote the welfare of the Latino community and the work of Latino social workers. The Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed upon her in 1995 by the USC School of Social Work. In 2002, CSULA initiated a permanent annual lecture series: the “Margarita Mendez Lecture in Social Work.”
Margarita Mendez believed in the inherent capacity of people to succeed. She insisted that social workers take seriously their mandate to serve as advocates for the disenfranchised. She never forgot her origins in the immigrant community and she remained loyal to that community and to the rightful place of ethnic minorities in the American dream. She knew how to influence public policy and taught those skills to others. And she served as a trusted friend, mentor and motivator for countless social work clients, students, and colleagues.