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35 glimpses at Lemon Grove

Including the 1931 Lemon Grove Incident

But an idea about the bitterness of the lemon—the lemony hangover I’ll call it—lingered.
  • But an idea about the bitterness of the lemon—the lemony hangover I’ll call it—lingered.
  • Photograph by Matthew Suárez

1 On January 5, 1931, 75 Mexican-American children were expelled from the Lemon Grove Grammar School. By decree of the school board, the principal, Jerome Green, blocked the doorway, proto-George-Wallace style, telling the kids to attend another school where they’d receive lessons in Americanization, habilitate their English, and learn “American” culture, before mixing with Anglos. These children of Mexican heritage were, Green and the board had decided, deficient in the lingua franca. They weren’t. Nearly all were fluently bilingual. (One man recalled his father at the time saying, “from the door outside, you’re in the United States, from the door inside, you’re in Mexico.”) The boys and girls were ordered to a makeshift building they dubbed “the barn.” The wall boards had spaces between them, sunlight shafting in. It smelled of horse manure. All but two refused to stay and left for their homes on Olive Street. On the way, their defiance earned insults—illegal, greaser, alien—though 95 percent were born in Lemon Grove.

The final wipeout of the lemony past was completed in 2002 when Lemon Grovers moved Harold Lee’s house, a medieval Tudor Revival mansion, built in the lemony heyday, 1928.

The final wipeout of the lemony past was completed in 2002 when Lemon Grovers moved Harold Lee’s house, a medieval Tudor Revival mansion, built in the lemony heyday, 1928.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

2 The last grove of lemon trees, which produced that sweet blossom smell of the sour fruit — Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat — was dug up for streets and single-family homes in 1962. Long gone are the fragrant odors, traded for exhaust fumes from Highway 94, which, at the time, split La Mesa and Lemon Grove. But an idea about the bitterness of the lemon—the lemony hangover, I’ll call it — lingered.

3 The Mexican-American parents, who suspected their children’s ouster but were not told, organized immediately. Many had been fighting Depression-era racism, proffered by whites, one of whom labeled immigrant communities as “endless streets crowded with the shacks of illiterate, diseased, pauperized Mexicans.” The stereotype, despite its bluster, didn’t fit. School children were seldom truant; large families maintained clean homes; men and women earned small but steady wages in the orchards, rock quarry, packinghouses, mill and lumber yards. They knew their constitutional rights. Their leader, Juan Gonzalez, reminded them that children born in America are American citizens.

There’s a five-panel, half-block-long, sun-splashed mural of Lemon Grove on the side of the Lemon Grove Baking Company, once the Sonka Brothers General Store

There’s a five-panel, half-block-long, sun-splashed mural of Lemon Grove on the side of the Lemon Grove Baking Company, once the Sonka Brothers General Store

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

4 During the 1920s, in the robust selling of Southern California life, Lemon Grove flaunted its superiority. It had an “excellent women’s club,” the best golf courses, good churches, paved roads, “a live-wire chamber of commerce,” “well-equipped schools,” and a thriving citrus industry. Its “better class of people” featured “professional[s] and businessmen” whose putative exceptionalism meant new arrivals would not “find a better class of people anyplace.”

5 Parents of the children formed the Lemon Grove Residents Committee. Seeking advice from the Mexican consulate, they hired the consulate’s lawyer, Fred Noon. Noon recognized a case that might overturn the America’s “separate but equal” doctrine. This law, affirmed by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), divided ethnicities and races based on housing, education, employment, public facilities, and more, as long as separate accommodations were equal. Such accommodations for nonwhites were always less — the Lemon Grove school board’s action proved it yet again. Noon sued the school board in San Diego Superior Court, and the case was set for a speedy trial.

The Lemon Grove Oral History Project: George Ceseña (left), Johnny Valdez (second from right), Helen Ofield (right).

The Lemon Grove Oral History Project: George Ceseña (left), Johnny Valdez (second from right), Helen Ofield (right).

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

6 In Images of America: Lemon Grove (2010), the chapter “Agricultural Heyday” shows among dozens of old-timey photographs only two pictures of pickers and packinghouse workers. Captions declare that Mexican migrants and the local labor force, who picked five million tons of fruit in 1910, were “indispensable” to “community growth.” Nearly all the photos throughout the book reveal the vast citrus ranches, the Sonka Brothers General Store, Mission Revival and Victorian homes, poultry farms, laundry services, bronco riding, the Lions Club, and more.

7 In April, the lawsuit was heard before Judge Claude Chambers. The San Diego district attorney’s office sided with the school board while the latter’s president termed the parents’ boycott, a “strike,” with the charge that Communists fanned the flames. Even before the hearing, one California legislator introduced a bill to rename Mexican-Americans “Indians” and establish a separate “Indian school.” This would allow the state to remove Native Americans and those of “Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian ancestry” to schools built for their “own kind.” None of these sleights swayed Judge Chambers. The school board, he wrote, had “no legal right or power to exclude” kids of Mexican heritage because their exclusion amounted to “racial segregation.” He said “the presence of the American children” alongside Mexican descendants is necessary to bettering the latter’s proficiency in English.

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 1: the Kumeyaay

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 1: the Kumeyaay

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

8 Memories persist, but who chooses which memories persist for a community? It seems American history is lately a battle between beliefs and their representations, that is, what has been the prescribed view of the past vs. what went wrong and is today being made right (multiculturalism is one way) as the enlightened view of the past. Quilting together multiple, disaggregated memories that contest the prescribed view is a (perhaps the) new reality. Or, more simply, foundational to San Diego’s diversity is the moral victory the dissent of ordinary citizens brought in 1931 for Lemon Grove’s children.

9 Despite the quick verdict in the plaintiffs’ favor, it would take 23 years before the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, outlawed school segregation and separate accommodations based on race, ethnicity, religion, or class, the final undoing of the “separate but equal” doctrine—at least, in law. Opened in 2004, in Topeka, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site set aside and memorializes Monroe elementary, which operated from 1877 to 1975 as an all-black school, 21 years after the desegregation order.

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 2: the arrival of the Conquistadors with their Padres

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 2: the arrival of the Conquistadors with their Padres

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

10 How does Lemon Grove tell itself its own story? Unevenly, at best. In the auditorium of Lemon Grove Academy of the Sciences and Humanities, also called middle school, hangs a photograph and plaque of the original plaintiff, Roberto Alvarez, one of the 75 kids in 1931 selected to represent the ousted children. “In recognition of his contribution to the children of the Lemon Grove School District, this building is dedicated,” the memorial under glass reads. The cowboy-hatted, white-mustachioed Alvarez, seemingly near 80, is pictured surrounded by bags and boxes of lemons.

11 Key to the Mexican-American families’ resistance was their Catholic faith, its bedrock, humility mixed with obeisance: The kids obeyed their parents, the kids’ parents obeyed their elders, and everyone obeyed the Church. Moreover, there was a selflessness among the parents: What was good for all was good for each family. Proving this fact was that the father of two kids insisted that his children stay at the barn, that is, until the lone teacher closed the school and sent them home. The man was a farrier, a shoer of horses, mostly of the white establishment. If he joined the boycott, he was afraid of losing their business. That would endanger his family. For him, obeisance was the rule as well. “It wasn’t a prejudice thing,” his grandnephew recalls. “He wanted Mexicans to stay with Mexicans.” Alas, not the way of the majority.

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 3: the Rancheros

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 3: the Rancheros

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

12 A final irony, the prickliest of all, is that the victory was christened the “Lemon Grove Incident.” Incidental to what? Not a watershed in educational opportunity and equality, but, according to Dictionary.com, “something that occurs casually in connection with something else.”

13 Perhaps that “something else” it was incidental to was selling the new, post-grove, residential suburb to back-Easterners. In a 1965 ad, we learn that “Lemon Grove basks in a sun-drenched, smog-free, 70-degree temperature more than 95 percent of each fruitful year. Its almost 100 percent homeowner residents view their neighboring communities from an enviable 460-foot perch that lavishes the California panorama.” The nearby College Grove Shopping Center, once a large orchard, sits on “one of the best frost-free spots in Southern California because the ocean breeze, which poured down the canyon and bounced off sunbaked rocks, keeps the air warm into the night.” Loss of the orchards is barely mourned: “Lemons were decreasingly shipped until the market decline and the [home] development surge in the middle forties.”

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 4: the Little Town Surrounded by Orchards

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 4: the Little Town Surrounded by Orchards

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

14 So, after the Incident, did peace and harmony reign? Hardly. The legacy, a sore point still, was to bury it — by all and sundry. Johnny Valdez is one of six siblings who grew up in Lemon Grove in the 1950s. His parents, one of whom rode with Pancho Villa, came to California to escape the Mexican revolution in which one million of 13 million Mexicans died. Valdez learned of the Incident only during the Chicano movement of the 1960s. “It was not part of the consciousness.” Hard to say the means by which Anglo and Mexican-American memories are differently buried, but they were. When people discover they’ve been uninformed or lied to about their past, they often erupt. Contending over and refashioning “the past” into a “people’s history” is the payback.

15 A little-known fact about the multicultural, multiethnic, and multinational lemon. It came from India, near the Himalayas. From India, seedlings of the tree traveled along the Arab trade routes until it was grafted as rootstocks in Italy around 100 A.D. A thousand years later, lemon trees were cultivated in Spain, with Columbus’s crew transporting and planting the first ones in the New World in 1493. Eventually, Spanish missionaries brought the lemon to California, where orchard growers teased and frost-protected each tree to yield crop after crop of lemons for more than 50 years.

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 5: Today’s Suburban Hub

Lemon Grove Baking Company mural panel 5: Today’s Suburban Hub

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

16 At first, Johnny Valdez wanted to teach “ethnic studies,” enshrine the Chicano story as part of the school curricula. But, even with a teaching certificate, he was refused: a man of Mexican heritage was biased, school districts told him; he said they “wanted an authority. I never got an offer.” That changed once he earned three master's degrees. At Palomar College, he built a multicultural studies department. (He retired in 2015, after 43 years, a professor emeritus.) In time, he recalls, the Lemon Grove Incident became better known, highlighting the Mexican-American community’s bravery and solidarity, “in defense of the children.” Valdez says that in the 1970s and beyond, Mexican-Americans used the Incident “to know our history, our identity. We advocated, ‘know your culture, know your language. It’s been kept from you.’”

17 The final wipeout of the lemony past was completed in 2002 when Lemon Grovers moved Harold Lee’s house, a medieval Tudor Revival mansion, built in the lemony heyday, 1928. The home of Lee, “a prosperous San Diego car dealer,” had to be saved from its site on Troy Street because Route 125, citing eminent domain, careened through the neighborhood. The Old-Globe-ish manor, according to its brochure, features “a steeply pitched, hip-gabled roof, multi-paned windows, massive chimney, decorative quatrefoils, exterior and interior half-timbering with plaster infill, interior structural crossbeams, oak floors and paneling, original entry door with heraldic knocker and interior doors with original hardware.” A rich irony, indeed, in two parts: that a car dealer’s home would be a victim of the car’s ubiquity and Lemon Grove’s most famous home revives the English Tudor medieval style home, that is, looks back on something that was never local to begin with. A displaced displacement.

Lorraine and Bobby Castellanos are part of a group of descendants of the Incident’s first families.

Lorraine and Bobby Castellanos are part of a group of descendants of the Incident’s first families.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

18 In 2011, 80 years after the Incident, Johnny Valdez and other local activists began the Lemon Grove Oral History Project. The idea was to honor the Mexican-American pioneer generation—especially of the 1930s. This generation of naturalized Americans agitated for equal educational opportunity on behalf of their American-born children. It’s obvious, Valdez tells me, that no one, Mexican or Anglo, wanted “inferior schools.” No parent wants their kids to “earn low wages and suffer poor employment choices.” Valdez himself was stuck for years doing landscaping, packing fruit, and boxing watermelons until the Chicano movement woke him up: “I was more than I thought I was.”

19 Memories persist, and what is remembered is not so different from what is true today. Educational attainment for Mexican-Americans still trails that of whites and blacks by a year on average. The labor background of Mexican immigrants “transfers imperfectly” to the U.S. market, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Skills learned in home countries are often far below the skills needed in the American workforce. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of U.S. men of Mexican heritage work in construction, farming, and landscaping, non-technological fields, and hundreds of thousands of women are siloed as housekeepers and nannies. Mexican immigrants lag Americans in English language proficiency: 87 percent of U.S.-born people of Mexican descent speak English “very well” while 26 percent of their Mexican-born counterparts in the U.S. speak the language “very well.”

20 In 1933, Lemon Grove Mexican-Americans began one of the first agricultural-based labor unions in California. The Comite Central en Lemon Grove. Union Mexicana de Obreros y Campesinos del Contado de SD Cal. Valdez describes to me the union’s lone walkout and its “very skimpy” historical record. Not until 2014 did he find a news article about the event, which occurred in 1934: “A one-day strike of orange pickers who wanted 25 cents a day [raise]—and they won. It lasted only one day.”

21 Helen Ofield, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, writes a blog that routinely bestirs a Lemon Grove that was. In a recent holiday piece, “1952 — Oh Little Town of Lemon Grove,” she describes how the “European, Mexican and Japanese immigrants who had built the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed in God, Christmas, the Ten Commandments, civic duty, patriotism and families.” “God was something to celebrate 365 days of the year and especially at Christmas Time.” Her point, I think, is that the leftwing culture-police have devalued the town’s celebration (“the war on Christmas”) and its time-honored link between Christ and America. Such a claim feels partisan for a historical society. And yet, there is no law that denies any historian’s or historical society’s right to interpret the past as they see fit. It’s called historiography.

22 In the early 1960s, when Cesar Chavez heard stories of the Lemon Grove Incident and, most important to him, how neighbors organized a boycott of the Americanization school, he came to Lemon Grove to interview the widow of Juan Gonzalez, leader of the opposition. Chavez was astounded that the neighbors’ committee had such courage in 1931: “How did they do it?” he asked. What he learned from the boycott informed his actions in the Delano grape strike, 1965 to 1970. As the grape-less buying counterculture of the 1960s recalls, the strike ended in a collective-bargaining agreement between growers and the United Farm Workers.

23 Long ago, at 55th and El Cajon, orchards thrived and Mexican Americans, many Lemon Grovers, picked oranges, grapefruit, and lemons. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, revived nationwide, including San Diego, decreed that only white pickers should be hired, claiming they were repulsed by the “brown flood” of laborers. Locally, the Klan targeted not African-Americans (few lived here) and, instead, harassed and murdered Mexican field workers, according to Journal of San Diego History authors Carlos M. Larralde and Richard Griswold del Castillo. A half-century on, a 1970s-era circular for the Klan Youth Corps reads in part: the group is “dedicated to the principle of White majority rule in America and actively resists programs and material in America’s education system which are designed to degrade and humiliate Western culture.”

24 To showcase the flower of lemony history, there’s a five-panel, half-block-long, sun-splashed mural of Lemon Grove on the side of the Lemon Grove Baking Company, once the Sonka Brothers General Store, the commercial lifeblood of the town 100 years ago. The panels show the Kumeyaay, the arrival of the Conquistadors with their Padres, the Rancheros, the Little Town Surrounded by Orchards, and Today’s Suburban Hub. In early panels, we find temperate settlers and contented natives — only happy people need apply. Later Lemon Grovers seem like the Ozzie and Harriets of 1950s TV. To showcase the fruit of lemony history — that hasn’t been replicated yet. What is its legacy? Lemon Grove kids defying their principal? The families celebrating their victory after the court case? Will the image of a sanitized past remain Lemon Grove’s? Should local memorials be free from past conflicts? How do we let the struggle for human rights enter into, and remain — despite its wounds and the divisions that may create — in the community mind?

25 Lemon Grove’s Oral History Project pays special tribute to Helen Ofield. For George Ceseña, whose elders were part of the Incident, Ofield has been an “inspiration, totally supportive” in launching memorials to the Incident in 2011 and to Mexican-American veterans in 2012. A Lemon Grove Historical Society certificate honors the project’s “ancestral Hispanic families” and their “strong kinship groups.” She is pushing the group to organize more exhibits around Mexican-American history, in part, because no one else will do it. Remembrances on behalf of a community must come from that community. Otherwise, historical societies can unintentionally misrepresent the felt memory of those who lived it. Not for any vindictive reason. But just out of ignorance. Separate fabrics stitched together is how the quilt gets made.

26 The Klan’s ultimate goal in Southern California was to “chase the wetbacks across the border.” According to several labor histories, the “chase” was supported by groups like the California Fruit Growers Exchange, whose vigilantes, according to historian Matt Garcia, would “psychologically intimidate workers” with “public parades, drive-by threats, night riding, and cross-burning.” In addition, the growers’ henchmen ratted out men who “challenged authority” or organized protests; some of these men subsequently “disappeared.” Local newspaper editors in the 1920s and 1930s quashed all Klan reportage as well as that of labor organizers. They feared tarnishing San Diego’s image of abundance and prosperity, from which Anglos, magnetized West, would benefit the most.

27 Kim Sowvlen, third-grade teacher at San Miguel elementary school for 24 years, says that her classes study the Incident. Often, Helen Ofield dresses up in period costume and, in grand manner, presents tales of the olden days: of citrus commerce, the railroad, the kids’ antique games. Every February, San Miguel third-graders learn about African-Americans—held in slavery, forbidden to read, and later, under Jim Crow, taught in separate schools, before and after Brown. Sowvlen tells her Lemon Grove cubs that “we had a similar event,” to what black people endured back then, “in our community. There were families who had to fight for the rights of their children to be in the same school. We talk about the unfairness of it. At 8 and 9, they understand fairness.”

28 The sole way we know today of the Klan’s abuses is via oral history: the San Diego History Center has stockpiled interviews that testify to the Klan’s outrages in the lemon orchards, where “Mexicans were occasionally discovered dead, sometimes disfigured by torture;” where Mexican laborers [were] dragged and lynched, others whipped or burned”; and where a few growers patrolled their orchards and fields because “their crops were worthless without Mexicans.”

29 Last year, in Sowvlen’s class, she had “one Caucasian student,” the rest, “children of color.” (Hispanics make up 50 percent of Lemon Grove school enrollment; Middle-Eastern and African-American are growing.) Emphasizing the Incident, she told her kids that “if you look across this room, all of you would be in different schools, especially our Mexican families, just because of where they had come from. People didn’t understand then that everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.” That simplest concept in American education needs to be taught because it once wasn’t true and it once wasn’t taught.

30 The Lemon Grove Oral History Project is amplifying other unacknowledged stories of the past: Mexican-American veterans of World War Two, the Korean and Vietnam wars; the Women’s Auxiliary movement, “Noche Azul,” who marched in parades and held fundraising dances in support of field and packinghouse workers; and the sordid history of deportations of Mexican- and Latin-American trade-union organizers like the scapegoat Luisa Moreno of Encanto, targeted and sent back to Guatemala as part of the federal government’s “Operation Wetback.” Participants in the oral history project are recording personal histories of activist family members before the tales are sealed forever by death or dementia.

31 Valdez’s “unexpected thesis” about Lemon Grove is that the Chicano movement that began in the 1950s and the 1960s (paralleling the civil rights movement in the Southern United States) was actually initiated 20 years earlier with an East County, Depression-era neighborhood and union organizing, which the Incident invigorated. But not without consequences. While 1930s Chicano activism fought the Klan and other segregationists, that same activism mobilized the segregationists — and their enablers — to censor (tamp down) the history of those they abused, which, in effect, magnified nostalgia — and not justice — as one simple way to portray the past: untroubled, golden, the flower so sweet. Which, for certain people, was not entirely untrue.

32 Today, city manager Lydia Romero runs the high-density town of 26,000 residents who live in its 3.8 square-mile tract. She told me recently that “Lemon Grove is a throwback to the 1930s, and we’re trying to give it new life. Mixing some of the kitschy uniqueness of Lemon Grove with some urban flavor.” What is “kitschy uniqueness”? Is it the sandy archways of the Mission Revival buildings, the six hair-and-nail salons on Broadway (the hair-and-nail capital of East County), the trolley-close apartment complexes next door to brewpubs, tap-houses, coffeehouses, and cannabis shops—the whole shebang Romero calls “economic devolvement”? That term means to pass on a debt or forfeiture or simple transfer — for example, a brick warehouse becomes a brewery. Maybe the 99 Cents Only store-funk of downtown is the ideal movie-set for the next True Detective series set in the 1970s. Whatever Lemon Grove was, it won’t be easy for new urban dwellers to distinguish which kitsch is truly tawdry and which is merely el cheapo.

33 In the 1940s, Lemon Grovers longed for the bulldozed orchards but stood in long lines for those low-priced tract homes. In the 1960s, Grovers remembered the defense jobs that, in San Diego proper, created a town (throw in Skyline, El Cajon, La Mesa, Spring Valley) far enough morally from the city’s opium dens, tattoo parlors, and whorehouses, the swabbie’s delight. In the 1980s, Grovers warmed to a lost past, which was an America “made great” and yearned for “again” because their sons and daughters rebelled against the lemony schmaltz and, as dissent, flung themselves into mosh pits and defaced the downtown lemon. In the 2000s, Grovers who owned Broadway’s mom-and-pop stores traded local for corporate, a la Home Depot, Target, and Harbor Freight Tools. In the 2020s, Grovers (Author’s Note: Such is true of everyone everywhere, which is also the point) will commodify intimate relationships, say one’s yearly birthday party, hiring an advertiser who, for free, live-streams the event with digitized product placement. If we survive to the 2040s, nostalgia for the 2020s may be the only form of air-conditioning left.

34 On a Saturday in February, a dozen descendants of the Incident’s first families—Ceseña, Bonilla, Alvarez, Castellanos, Oyo, Liere, Valdez—reminisce about their history in the photo-filled, knotty-pine home of Bobby and Loraine Castellanos. To my ear, any bitterness about the Anglo segregationists of Lemon Grove is gone. Instead, the group cozies itself around the warm blaze of group memory, the sense of blessing among the long-lived. They tell stories about a robust priest, Father O’Donaghue. Notorious for his school discipline, he used to drag kids by their ears out of classes if they misbehaved. Laughter at his draconian way of faith-guilting everyone (“He’d come by the house if you weren’t in church”) fills the room. He’s beloved because despite that discipline, he kept the children, with their parents’ approval, in line so they would learn. “Oh, how we feared him. Oh, how he gave of himself for us kids.”

35 Rose Valdez says that what stays with her as-told-to memory about the 1931 Incident (she was born the year after) was the boycott’s peacefulness: “No fighting, no looting, no violence, no arguing among the parents.” The families’ silent, almost sacred resistance was a victory for Anglo and Mexican-American parents; eventually, all Lemon Grovers got the message and closed ranks on behalf of their children. George Ceseña recalls that his best friend in high school was an Anglo, a fact he didn’t recognize until later when someone pointed it out. The legacy has been few (or fewer) ethnic conflicts. A social injustice quickly corrected deserves its mural, its historic site, a telltale plaque, depicting a renegade segregationist school board, Mexican-American children arbitrarily judged inferior, and the defiant immigrant parents, towering above all.

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You can watch the full version of The Lemon Grove Incident furnished by PBS.

https://www.pbs.org/video/the-lemon-grove-incident-gcrfxv/

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