Author and illustrator Christy Hale’s tenderly illustrated bilingual history book, Todos Iguales/All Equal, is an account of the events in Lemon Grove, Calif., that led to the court case Roberto Álvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. The decision on March 12, 1931, was the first successful school desegregation case in the United States, barring separate education in the state of California for Mexican American or any children on the basis of ethnicity. (Segregation in schools didn’t become unconstitutional nationwide until more than 20 years later with the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.)
What is this Lemon Grove story, and how does it become a children’s book? Hale begins her book with a corrido, a Mexican-style ballad of the events (complete with notes and chords). She then tells these events through the eyes of the 12-year-old Mexican American boy Roberto Álvarez, who became the plaintiff in the case. The text—in both English and Spanish—and the accompanying illustrations follow the lives of Roberto and his 74 Mexican American classmates in 1930 and 1931. Most of them were U.S. citizens and the children of agricultural workers who had worked for decades in the surrounding fields and groves. After attending an integrated public school “across the tracks” all their lives with a hundred or so Anglo children, the Mexican American community learned in the summer of 1930 that the Lemon Grove School Board had decided to build a separate, much inferior school on their side of the tracks for their children. In the board’s view, there was a need for special instruction to address the presumed multiple learning deficiencies of the Mexican American children. The outraged community boycotted the separate school when it opened in 1931, hired lawyers, and filed suit in court. Roberto, a U.S. citizen and exemplary student who spoke perfect English, became the plaintiff and key witness in the case. The judge discerned that the school board had no legitimate case and ruled in the spring of 1931 that all Mexican American students were to return to their original Lemon Grove public school and learn alongside their Anglo classmates and friends.
This book is a history lesson for teachers and parents to read together with their young people. It can be read in either language or some combination of the two—a rich language learning opportunity. Reading this book will invite conversation on these issues that speak to our own fraught times of conflict around race, ethnicity, and immigration. In fact, many of the arguments used today against inclusion of “the other” were used in the 1930s in Lemon Grove. Above all, Todos Iguales/All Equal is a hopeful book about the healing that is possible across ethnic and racial divides in the United States when an injured community unites and engages the legal system to ensure a humane and constitutional outcome. There is hope for our times as well.