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Saturday, March 24, 2007 | In 1931, Lemon Grove made history. Nearly 25 years before Brown v. Board of Education, a judge ordered the city’s school district to shut down an “Americanization school” it had opened three months before for the district’s Latino students, a decision marking the first successful school desegregation case in the country.

Earlier this month, Lemon Grove celebrated the 75th anniversary of Alvarez v. Lemon Grove Board of Education by honoring Roberto Alvarez, a former pupil who, at the age of 12, served as the lead plaintiff in the case on behalf of 75 Latino students. The school board has dedicated the auditorium of the Lemon Grove Middle School in his honor — the building sits at the site of the original school house that Alvarez attended.

Alvarez grew up to found Coast Citrus, an international produce distributor. He died in 2003.

Ernest Anastos, the school district’s new superintendent, recently sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to discuss how much things have changed since 1931 — and how much remains the same.

Could you talk a little bit about what prompted the commemoration?

Well you know, there were a couple of things that prompted the commemoration. No. 1, the school board has, for a number of years, been thinking of the most appropriate way to recognize what happened back in — actually, it started in 1930, in July. The PTA approached Lemon Grove to request that the Mexican students — Mexican-American students, because most of them were born in the United States — be housed in a separate school.

And so the event was somewhat under the radar, because this is a small community still, and it was particularly small then, and it was resolved by today’s standards really rapidly. The decision was made by the school board to, in fact, construct a second school, which was not in any way comparable to the school the students were already attending, and then to have the kids go there after Christmas break. In other words, start in January, but by March — it happened March 11 — is when the court case came up. Within two days, the decision was made by the judge that this was illegal and that it would not be allowed.

So the board has been envisioning a time when we could honor Roberto Alvarez and commemorate the whole event. And I guess it was one of those things where we have gotten close to doing a couple of the times, and what we finally did was say, “Well, let’s first establish a board policy that defines how it is we go about naming buildings in the first place, and why we would do such a thing.” So basically, what we wanted to do is be very formal about it. We made the board policy this year to establish a protocol by which we would establish the naming of buildings, and … the case that Alvarez was in certainly met all of those qualifications in every way. He was a student here that went on to become an important community member and business person, so the board decided that what we would do is, indeed, name a building.

When they talked about it a few years ago, they talked about naming a preschool building, that kind of thing, but the more we thought about it, we decided we should name a large building, or a hall, that the people would use regularly, that the community would use regularly and see regularly, so we thought about using the Lemon Grove Middle School auditorium. And we realized that the auditorium was where the original school house was. So the whole thing seemed like everything was in alignment.

Additionally, when we started researching — again, I have only been here a year and a half — we said, “You know what, the 75th anniversary is coming up of the court case.” … So we felt, gosh, the auditorium is in the original condition, it’s the 75th year, this is perfect, we now have a policy a place. And also, Mr. Alvarez, (who spoke at the commemoration), the son of Roberto Alvarez, the petitioner in the case, is himself a historian and a presenter, and so he has often kept the story alive. So everything was basically in the right place.

I just think it’s also important to bring it to the forefront, because education seems — people’s focus on education, it seems, is cyclical, and we’re looking closely at education again. We talk a lot about it because, with the recent years of No Child Left Behind, and the push at looking at student assessment, the discussion about English learners, it’s a very active conversation that has been going on for years. The greatest thing, of course, this is basically the first court case. It preceded Brown v. Board of Education by almost 25 years, so that point is great. And the other thing that’s really cool, when Roberto Alvarez was a petitioner, he was just 12 years old, he was a fifth-grader, and so that also resonates with our kids today.

What was the board’s response at the time?

What’s interesting is that we have all of the original, hand-written minutes of the board meetings, because, as a school district, we’re required to keep all of our minutes. So we have them all here in a vault, and we’ve been rereading them, and selecting some to display at the event. We’ve also made a copy of those minutes for the Lemon Grove Historical Society.

So the board’s response was, at first, a form of disbelief. They sort of thought that, at first, it was a sort of decision they could make in 1930. They didn’t actually make an announcement, they didn’t include, as the decision was made by three board members, any of the community members, the parents of the children who would be impacted. Which is not how we do business today, as you can imagine. We are constantly communicating with parents today about their kids.

But I think, in those years, and I have to tell you, this event, this decision that the school board made in the 1930, was preceded by a decade in the United States in which lots of separate schools were being built. Americanization schools, predominantly for Chinese students, Native American students, and African American students, and I believe in the board’s mind — I certainly wasn’t there — there was a thought that they were not doing something wildly different. I think, for one thing, it was a PTA request. It came from the PTA, of all things, which certainly included none of the parents of the kids who were affected.

So they thought about how this was happening in other places, and it was happening. I think the sheer fact that they acted without any sort of discussion with the community at all, there was no kind of discussion at all, and so, quickly, the whole thing just kind of happened under the radar. And the kids and families of Mexican descent didn’t really hear about it until Christmas break, and all of they knew was that they would be expected to attend a different school when they returned.

I guess my question was more about how the board reacted to the court decision.

I think it was more shock and disbelief, because they went in expecting this to be a no-brainer. They went in expecting absolutely no resistance. And I think when you think about the context in which those people were living in, it somewhat limited the thought that was given to that thing, and just the thought that people were just so much more unenlightened in those years, when there was such a bigger divide economically, that they were kind of stunned.

There was consideration to appeal the decision, but because the school board had to pay not only for their own costs, they had already paid the cost of building a new school, which was likened to a barn, they had to pay the legal costs of the petitioners, of the Mexican American kids, so they didn’t have the money to appeal, and I think that was part of the reason they chose not to appeal, and that’s why the case kind of died down.

Why do you think the case is not as well known as Brown?

I think a couple of things. I think, first of all, it happened at a time in history when people were so unaware, or had given so little thought to these issues, that, literally, I think it was because it was such a localized issue. Very local, it was seen locally, the people that were concerned were like the Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce, that kind of thing, so it didn’t have the type of media attention that the things in the ’50s had. Once we get past World War II, and get into the early era of the ’50s, kind of the very politicized era of television, by then all eyes are riveted on news, even insignificant news. …

So yeah, this happened, and, at best, it might’ve appeared in a newspaper, and maybe a radio broadcast, as opposed to like a big-deal piece. However, it’s specifically upheld every student’s right to equal access to equal education, not separate but equal, and I think it’s kind of amazing. I’m not a historian, but I think in the world of history classes, and even in the world of history education, it becomes an episode in the evolution of thought about education. But again, it wasn’t until Brown that everything was so visible, politicized and got enough media attention to become a household world.

How has the district changed since the time of the decision?

Well, you know what’s interesting, in the ’30s, by the way, almost half of the kids in the district were of Mexican descent. Because, No. 1, remember that this is a small agricultural town, and so actually, it was always a diverse community, because this is a working class community, a bedroom community, in essence, of the bigger city, and it had agricultural roots. I can tell you that in those days, the majority population was in fact a white or Anglo-Saxon population — I’ll just call everyone white, white kids. And the other population was predominantly Mexican American. There may have been a few Chinese students.

So that would’ve kind of been both the agricultural, and if there was any light manufacturing, that would’ve been the families that were there. And you have to remember that at that time, there was a tremendous — President Hoover was in the White House, and we were having horrible — I mean, this is like the beginnings of the Depression. So there was a lot of antagonistic feeling about immigrants anyway, you know. So some of this, I’m guessing, was fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment that was fueled by the fact that we had a recession. And so there this other piece that I’m sure polarized people.

Today, however, I can tell you that over 40 percent of our students are of Mexican descent, or are Mexican Americans, so we still have a very large, thriving, successful Latino population, most of whom are, like they were in those days, American citizens, born in the United States. And, like in those days, we have a number of English language learners that we are serving. The thing is, we’re not serving only Spanish speakers as English language learners any more. We have 100 Somali children who have come here from Somalia. So the context in which we work has changed, what hasn’t changed is the fact that this is a diverse community. A quarter of the kids are African American or are of African descent. I guess the kids from Somalia I would consider more, at this point, of African descent instead of African American. A quarter of the kids are white now. So the white population that we serve now is much smaller. The difference has been made up by other, what has traditionally been considered minority populations coming in. But the Hispanic or Mexican American population has held pretty much the same.

You mentioned the role of the immigration debate at the time. And these issues are reemerging —

They sure are.

So, what are the lessons from the Alvarez case we can apply now?

I think there are a couple of lessons. I think, No. 1, I think that the people of that era, as people of power and money, which historically are white people, I think that they over-simplified the issue and underestimated the importance and the value that all families put in education for their children. No one has a monopoly on who wants a better education. In fact, if anything, families that come to the United States are driven, if not just by the financial needs, are driven by a vision of a better life for their children, and that starts with a better education. People who were not born here come here so that their kids get a better education, and so their kids have a better future. And that’s a very powerful dream, and I think it motivates people. And for that reason, I would say that students who have been underrepresented in the past, perhaps, in fact, are more motivated, and their parents are motivated, it appears to me, to continue to demand the best possible educational options for their kids. As it should be. Every kid should get the best possible options. So I think that was an underestimation by the school board in 1930, and by the community back in 1930.

I think the other lesson is kind the indomitable spirit of every parent and child to really succeed. These kids — the wonderful part of the story is that the kid who we’re honoring, who has now deceased, was really a poster child for how quickly and successfully students can indeed learn. He was chosen as a petitioner to represent these students because he was so articulate, he was well-mannered, he was practically eloquent, and he was bright. And it was the perfect example of how we want every child to be. So that was great. I think those are some of the things that people should take from the story.

— Interview by VLADIMIR KOGAN

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