About the Holiday
From September 15th through October 15th National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the contributions of those who come from or whose ancestors immigrated from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Each year the holiday adopts a particular theme. This year’s theme is “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope.” From business and industry to culture, sports, and entertainment, Hispanic and Latinx Americans have made an important and indelible imprint on our country. You can learn more about the holiday and find cross-curricular resources for classrooms and homeschooling, videos, exhibitions, and much more from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, the National Gallery of Art, the Nationla Archives and more to use not only this month but throughout the year on the official Hispanic Heritage Month website.
Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez
Written by Larry Dane Brimmer | Illustrated by Maya Gonzalez
On January 5, 1931 twelve-year-old Roberto Alvarez was happy to be going back to Lemon Grove Grammar School after the Christmas vacation. But when he got there “the principal told Roberto and the other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.” He told them to go to the new Mexican school on Olive Street, and when they arrived, their teachers and desks were already waiting for them.
This had all come about stealthily after the school district’s board of trustees received a letter from the parent-teacher association complaining that “the Mexican children didn’t understand English,” which “held back the white students.” The letter also said that the “Mexican children were unclean and endangered the health of every other student in the school.” The board decided to construct a separate school—but without telling the Mexican parents, fearing “trouble.”
But as the Olive Street school was being built, Mexican parents understood it true purpose of segregation and instructed their children not to attend, but to come home. Most of the kids, including Roberto did as their parents told them. “That January morning the Olive Street School stood almost empty, except for two teachers, three students, and many unoccupied desks.” Roberto believed he didn’t need a different school. While his parents had come from Mexico, he had been born in California and spoke English as well as any of the white students.
The Mexican parents formed the “Comité de Vecinos de Lemon Grove—the Lemon Grove Neighbors Committee”—to talk about the situation. They knew the new school had not been built to “help their students learn the English language and American customs, as the school board and newspapers claimed.” The only deciding factor of which school a child attended was the color of their skin.
The Comité de Vecinos acquired two lawyers, and on February 13, 1931 “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego” by filing a law suit against the Lemon Grove School board of trustees. His lawsuit asked that the school district stop discriminating against the Mexican students and allow them to return to the Lemon Grove School. The school board falsely stated that the students’ strike was “organized by Mexico or by groups in Mexico,” and the president told a reporter he knew that the district attorney of San Diego was on the school’s side.
In fact the San Diego district attorney represented the school board in its dealings with the court, saying that the Olive Street School was for “‘better instruction,’” a claim that was different from the minutes from the school board’s summer meetings. He then went on to say that having a school in their own neighborhood was safer since they didn’t have to cross the railroad tracks. But Roberto wanted to go to school with all of his friends—”brown and white.”
The trial began on March 10, 1931 in San Diego. The lawyers for the school board insisted that the new school was to “benefit the Mexican pupils…not to separate” them. Roberto’s lawyers countered this with the minutes from the board’s summer meetings.
The trial ended the next day, and the decision was handed over to the judge. Two days later, the judge handed down his ruling. He stated that “in the eyes of the law the Lemon Grove School District had no power to set up a separate school for Mexican children.” On April 16, 1931, the judge’s ruling became official and the school board was ordered to immediately admit Roberto Alvarez and all of the other Mexican students “‘without separation or segregation.’” Roberto knew he had to stand up for what was right, and as he and the other Mexican students returned to school, “this time all were welcomed.”
An extensive Author’s Note, complete with photographs of Roberto Alvarez, his third- and fourth-grade classmates in 1928, Roberto’s mother, Lemon Grove Grammar School and its principal, and Roberto in 1999, reveals more about this historical event, the people involved, and the political and social atmosphere in the US at the time. Larry Dane Brimmer also discusses other cases of school segregation and follows up with the consequences for Lemon Grove principal Jerome Green and the successful career enjoyed by Roberto Alvarez as an entrepreneur. Resources used in researching the book are also included.
Larry Dane Brimmer’s compelling history of this landmark case and biography of Roberto Alvarez and all of the students and their parents who stood up for equal access to schooling is instructive and empowering. The fact that this issue and similar others continue to roil schools, workplaces, and communities, makes Without Separation a vital resource to educate children and adults on system racism and how it spreads.
Brimmer highlights the courage, intelligence, and acceptance that children display and inspires them to lend their voices to change injustice wherever they find it. Brimmer’s clear and precise storytelling allows children to understand the actions and discussions involved in the school board meetings, neighborhood committee meetings, and the trial without losing any of the story’s emotional impact.
Maya Gonzalez’s lovely folk-art illustrations present stylized-yet-realistic depictions of the citrus groves, the school, and the courtroom. Fashions and décor set the time period while also appearing appropriate today. Another portrayal of universality is accomplished in Gonzalez’s two-page spread of the board of trustees’ meeting, in which she pictures the members sitting at a table with only their feet and upper body showing. Not only is this group representative of the 1930 school board, but of the “faceless” masses and committees that often drive policy today. Many images of the Mexican community supporting each other shows readers what can be accomplished when people work together.
An important book that will resonate with its target audience, Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez is a must-addition to any home, classroom, school, and public library.
Ages 7 – 10 and up
Calkins Creek, 2021 | ISBN 978-1684371952
Discover more about Larry Dane Brimmer and his books on his website.
To learn more about Maya Gonzalez, her books, and her art, visit her website.
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