Sometimes, a story idea won’t let go, but, like Larry Dane Brimner, until I connect on an emotional or experiential level that hits me in the heart, it won’t become a story. Here, Larry shares how he found his way into his latest book: Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez, releasing Sept. 14, 2021.
AND—a GIVEAWAY! Just leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez.
A Difference of Color by Larry Dane Brimner
When I first began thinking about the legal case of Roberto Alvarez as a book in the mid-1980s, I viewed it as straight nonfiction—the history behind the case, the legal case itself, the verdict. ZZZZzzzz! It put me to sleep just thinking about it. I put it away, but would return to it every so often in an attempt to find the door in. Finally, in 2015 and 2016, I found the door in, or perhaps it was just an open window, but the result became Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez.
Before I begin a nonfiction project, the subject matter has to hit me in the heart. That is to say, it has to resonate with my own life experience. While I am not a person of color, at least not as far as I am aware from my limited knowledge of my own family ancestry, I have experienced prejudice and segregation. I have felt the stabbing pain of being called hurtful names, of being shunned by family and others, and of being denied jobs because of my sexual identity. When I read about a group of Mexican and Mexican American children being told by the Lemon Grove School District in a rural area outside San Diego, California, that they must attend a separate school, one that would segregate them from white students, I felt the pain they certainly must have felt. The difference of color made all the difference—in the minds of the members of the school board.
But how to shape the story from straight nonfiction into something informative of history, telling of the struggle for equality, and yet be entertaining. That was the hurdle that I needed to jump. I decided to approach the story as if I were writing fiction:
- Introduce the main character, in this case Roberto Alvarez.
- Get to the story problem in the first few pages.
- Make the beginning as dramatic as possible to hook the reader.
- And then let the tale unfold with backstory and other details as the main character works to resolve the problem.
The story begins with Roberto walking to school, eager to be returning after the Christmas holiday. That January morning in 1931 “the school’s principal greeted students,” but “he didn’t welcome them all.” Instead, he “told Roberto and the other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.”
But the tale as I told it is not strict nonfiction. Because I gave Roberto a bigger role than he actually played, it is technically historical fiction. The case was brought to the attention of the courts by the Mexican parents on behalf of Roberto and the other students of Mexican parentage. The case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, took on his name because the lawyers who argued before the court needed a child who had been turned away from school that January, who was fluent in English, and who was also a good student in order to prove that it was a difference of skin color and not ability that determined which of Lemon Grove’s two schools a child would attend. Roberto filled the bill.
If you search for stories that punch you in the heart, that make your heart quiver with recognition, you’ll have a story that only you can tell.
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez. (contiguous US addresses only, please – drawing 9/17)