When my grandpa first started elementary school in the early 1930s, he didn’t speak much English, and he was placed in a segregated school in Williams, Arizona, which was then a small sawmill town just outside the Grand Canyon. Almost all of the kids in his classes, including him, spoke Spanish at home and in their everyday lives.
When I tell people that my grandpa, whose family came from Mexico in the early 1900s, went to a segregated school filled with students with similar backgrounds, they’re often confused. Because when we think of school segregation, we most often think of the segregation of African-American students—maybe the Little Rock Nine, or protests against busing in Boston.
However, as is often the case, the history is a bit more complicated. The segregation of Latin American students and other people of color in public education has a long history in this country. During this National Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s take a look at the first successful school desegregation case in the United States, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. It illustrates the importance of education civil rights victories for Latin American students, their families, and the broader fight for school desegregation.
Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District
Immigrants from Mexico were at the forefront of the fight to desegregate public schools in America. In fact, Alvarez v. Lemon Grove (also referred to as the Lemon Grove Incident) became the first successful school desegregation court decision in the US, marking an important milestone in the history of school civil rights.
In 1931 the principal of the Lemon Grove Grammar School, east of San Diego, refused entry to all students of Mexican origin, and required them instead to attend school in a two-room building known to locals as the “barnyard.” The decision was based on careful planning by the school board and fueled by anti-Mexican sentiment. What the trustees did not anticipate, however, was the opposition from the Mexican-American community.
With assistance from the Mexican consulate and legal advocates, the community took on the school board and eventually the courts ruled in favor of student Roberto Alvarez.
Twenty-five years later, my grandpa moved to Lemon Grove to teach, becoming one of the first Mexican-American teachers in the district.
Although the Lemon Grove Incident has been largely obscured by history until recently, it is a key victory in the long fight for school desegregation. Within the context of a hostile political environment rife with anti-Mexican sentiment, the Mexican-American families refused to be bullied into accepting a second-class education for their children.
Even today, almost a century after Alvarez v. Lemon Grove and many decades after Brown v. Board of Education, we still see de facto segregation in many of our public schools. We must continue to challenge the systemic structures that deny equal opportunity to equal education.