Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez by Larry Dane Brimner and Maya Gonzalez

Happy Thursday! Larry Dane Brimner stopped by to finish my sentences. We discussed the book trailer for Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez, Maya Gonzalez’s illustrations, historical fiction, and more. I wrote the words in purple, and Larry wrote the words in black

The book trailer for Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez does a great job of posing some questions for potential readers and of introducing the topic of the story. I’m grateful to Calkins Creek for doing this. It is the first trailer that a publisher has done for me, but not my first book trailer. I’ve done a few for other books myself.

Maya Gonzalez’s illustrations absolutely capture the story and the time period. I believe she took her cue from Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, who was active during the same period.

Roberto Alvarez was an involuntary main character in real life. Court cases involving children are usually filed by parents, guardians, or interested adults on behalf of the child. The case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, took on Roberto’s name because the lawyers who were representing the Mexican parents saw in him a winning plaintiff. Before a lawsuit can proceed through the courts, there has to be a wronged party, someone whose rights have been violated. Enter Roberto. He fit the bill. The school board claimed that the children of Mexican parentage held back the white students. It claimed that these children were academically inferior, needed extra help, and had a poor grasp of the English language. Roberto wasn’t the only Mexican American child turned away from Lemon Grove Grammar School that January day in 1931 and told to attend the Olive Street School, the recently built school for Mexican pupils. But Roberto was holding no one back. He spoke English well, was a good student, and was articulate. There was no need for him to be sent to the Olive Street School. Clearly, the school board’s assertion that the new school had been built not to segregate but to help Mexican and Mexican American children learn American customs and language was false. The new school was meant to segregate these children from Lemon Grove’s white pupils.

Nonfiction picture books present history in a clear and concise way. With any luck, they make that history interesting and, perhaps, include a bit more for the young mind that wants to dig deeper. Although my telling of Roberto’s story is 99.9% based on fact, it is classified as historical fiction because I allowed Roberto a bigger role than he had in real life. I wrote, “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931. 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.” In truth, it was the parents who, through their lawyers and legal briefs filed with the court, asked these things. But all stories need a main character, and Robert was the obvious choice. Roberto did testify in court and responded to the judge’s questions. He was composed and offered thoughtful, articulate answers which likely helped to influence the judge’s decision.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me why the story is labeled as historical fiction rather than nonfiction. In part, I’ve already answered this above, but to expand on that answer I would add that if I’d chosen to tell this story as straight nonfiction it would have been very short. Too short for a middle-grade book. Unlike my nonfiction telling of the Scottsboro boys in Accused!, which spent decades in litigation, the case bearing Roberto’s name was argued in court one day and the judge rendered his decision the next. End of story. There were no appeals. There was no drama. So I allowed for Roberto to be a doer, a main character, to add life to this important civil rights case.

Calkins Creek's Description: 

This important yet little-known civil rights story focuses on Roberto Alvarez, a student whose 1931 court battle against racism and school segregation in Lemon Grove, California, is considered the first time an immigrant community used the courts to successfully fight injustice. A must-read for young activists, or for anyone interested in standing up for what’s right. 

Roberto Alvarez’s world changed the day he could no longer attend Lemon Grove Grammar School in the small, rural community where he lived near San Diego, California. He and the other Mexican American students were told they had to go to a new, separate school—one where they would not hold back the other students. But Roberto and the other students and their families believed the new school’s real purpose was to segregate, to separate. They didn’t think that was right, or just, or legal.

Based on true events, this picture book by Sibert award-winning author Larry Dane Brimner and Pura Belpré honor award-winning illustrator Maya Gonzalez follows Roberto and the other immigrant families on their journey.


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