September 11



            I suppose I blame it all on PBS. It was, after all, the YouTube of my youth. It was also one of three television channels we were able to pick up on the massive black-and-white TV that graced our living room, circa 1963.

            John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in the White House, and I was in junior high. One of my teachers had given the assignment to write about our family Thanksgiving traditions. All right then, by the 1960s my family was subsisting on restaurant fare most nights during the week, supplemented by Swanson TV dinners when we weren’t perusing menus. Don’t get me wrong, my mom was a fantastic cook, or could be, but she had become—well, disillusioned, I guess, is as good a word as any—disillusioned then with the whole notion of homemaking and all that it entailed. She had discovered TV dinners a few years before and ever since that discovery, Thanksgiving meals consisted of whatever was available at one of the local restaurants we frequented or a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner, complete with a paste-like stuffing, all in disposable aluminum trays which my mom dealt from the oven the way a croupier deals cards. Naively, I broached the topic of Thanksgiving traditions with her and asked, “Why don’t we celebrate Turkeyday the way a normal American family does?” Her response was swift and also a challenge, saying, “If you want a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, make it yourself.”

            That brings me back to PBS. In 1963, the Public Broadcasting Service launched Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” and I became an instant fan. (Yes, I wrote fan mail to dear Julia telling her of my desire to become a chef and she responded with words of encouragement and, thus, began a year’s long correspondence. Yes, I was a nerd even before the term became popular in the American lexicon and so feel eminently qualified to write for anything called the Nerdy Book Club.) I would watch each episode, which aired on Saturday afternoons in San Diego where I lived, take notes, and then attempt to duplicate the simpler recipes during the week. My dates with Julia became an on-going affair.

            Sometime during the mid-1980s while waiting for one of Julia’s episodes to air and by then having become a published writer myself (and not a professional chef), I happened upon “The Lemon Grove Incident,” a docudrama based on Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. I was immediately drawn to the story in part because Lemon Grove is a suburb of San Diego and I knew the community well, but also because I was intrigued that the story revolved around a twelve-year-old. I began noodling with ideas to tell the Alvarez story in my own way.

            Over the years, there were many false starts. To tell the Alvarez story as straight nonfiction, the genre I’m most known for, seemed futile. Unlike the infamous case of the Scottsboro boys, which I wrote about in Accused! and which lasted for decades through one prejudiced trial after another, the Alvarez case went to court one day, and the judge rendered his decision the next day. End of story. There were no appeals. There was no drama. As straight nonfiction, the Alvarez case, simply put, lacked enough meat to sustain a middle-grade book.

            But what if Roberto, the plaintiff, also became the story’s main character? What would happen if the spotlight was turned on this twelve-year-old?        

            In fiction, a main character is the story’s doer. He or she may or may not have a sidekick, but it is the main character who faces an obstacle and sets forth a course of action to resolve the issue. Or not. A happy ending versus the alternative.

            That brings me back to Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. Roberto was one of several children of Mexican parentage who arrived at Lemon Grove Grammar School the first day after Christmas holiday, only to be turned away. The principal told him and the others that their desks and books had been moved to a new school, the Olive Street School, and that they should go there instead. The new school, which had been hastily constructed and lacked the niceties of Lemon Grove Grammar School, was built specifically for the children of Mexican heritage because the school board claimed they held back the white students. Rather than go to the new school, though, all but three of the children returned to their homes. Thus began the boycott of the Lemon Grove School District.

            Rarely are court cases instigated by children. They usually are filed by parents, guardians, or interested adults. But legal cases need a wronged party to proceed in the courts. In this case, Roberto. He was a good student, articulate, and spoke English as well as any of the white pupils. He was not holding anyone back. The lawyers who had agreed to take the case for the Mexican parents knew that in Roberto, they had a winning plaintiff, one who had been treated unfairly and unjustly simply because of the color of his skin, simply because of his Mexican parentage.

            “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931,” I wrote. “He filed a lawsuit against the board of trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. He asked the court to order the school district to stop discriminating against students like him.” But did he? Suddenly, Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez leaves the realm of nonfiction and becomes historical fiction.

            That’s Roberto’s story. It’s all true, every last word of it. Well, sort of.

Larry Dane Brimner is a former teacher and Sibert-winning author of many nonfiction books for young readers, including Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961, Birmingham Sunday, and Finding a Way Home: Mildred and Richard Loving and the Fight for Marriage Equality. He is also the author of numerous early readers, including his new Racing Ace series to debut in 2022. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.