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Obituaries

Roberto Alvarez, 84; Businessman Made History in 1931 With Landmark School Integration Suit

February 26, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Roberto R. Alvarez, who made millions as an international produce distributor but made history at age 12 when he won a landmark court case to desegregate his San Diego-area grammar school, has died. He was 84.

Alvarez was the lead plaintiff in a 1931 lawsuit against the school district in Lemon Grove, which had tried to move Mexican American students into a separate building at its grammar school.

A court in San Diego County ruled that the school could not legally separate the children. The case was the first successful challenge to school segregation, coming 23 years before the U.S. Supreme Court held segregation unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case.

Alvarez finished his schooling in San Diego, graduating in 1937 from Grossmont High School. After working in a downtown San Diego grocery store and serving in the Navy during World War II, he began selling oranges off the back of a truck with a cousin.

Their bootstrap business quickly grew, and Alvarez capitalized on the Mexican heritage that had made him a target of segregation as a child. He was a pioneer in importing produce from Mexico, and built his company, Coast Citrus Distributors, into a 400-employee business operating in California, Texas, Florida, Tijuana and Guadalajara.

Alvarez, who was born in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, was a fifth-grader when Lemon Grove tried to split Mexican American children from white students. He was chosen to represent the schoolchildren because, as a top student, he could refute the district's allegations that Mexican American children needed to be removed for remedial help.

The grammar school had been a rare integrated spot in a town in which whites and Mexican Americans lived on opposite sides of the railroad tracks. But with anti-Mexican sentiment rising in California, school officials decided to divide the children.

On Jan. 5, 1931, the principal of Lemon Grove Grammar School, Jerome T. Green, stood at the schoolhouse door, admitting only white students. He directed the Mexican American children to a two-room building.

The children, who had been coached by their parents, returned home. They were told by their parents not to attend school in the new building, which they called "La Caballeriza," the stable.

The parents formed the Comite de Vecinos de Lemon Grove (the Lemon Grove Neighbors Committee) and with the help of the Mexican consul hired a lawyer to sue the district. In March 1931 the court sided with the parents against the school district.

However, the ruling stands as a mixed blessing for civil libertarians: Although integrating the school, it did so by holding that the Mexican American children were "white" and thus could not be separated from other whites. California law continued to allow segregation of whites from Asians, blacks and Native Americans, barring only the segregation of whites from other whites.

The school district never appealed the case, and it was largely forgotten for decades.

Roberto Alvarez Jr., a UC San Diego ethnic studies professor, said he never heard about the case while growing up. He said he learned about it in 1978, when he was studying his family's history as part of his doctoral research at Stanford. He later published scholarly articles about the case, which led to a 1986 television docudrama.

Alvarez said that his father was proud of the Lemon Grove incident, but that he believed that the Mexican immigrant parents who challenged the establishment despite being poor and unable to speak English were the true heroes.

Alvarez said his father was proud of his business success, especially so because it built on his Mexican identity -- he always wore a cowboy hat, a tribute to his Mexican roots.

"He was proud of who he was, he was very Mexicano," his son said.

Besides his son, Alvarez is survived by his wife, Margarita; two other sons; three daughters; 21 grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; a brother; and a sister -- all living in the San Diego area.

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