(Feb. 28) Roberto R. Alvarez, 84, of El Cajon, Calif., died Feb. 20.

In 1950, Alvarez founded Coast Citrus Distributors, San Diego, a produce wholesaler that evolved into a significant distributor with sectors in Northern and Southern California, Texas, Florida and Mexico.

He owned two Farm to Market retail grocery and health stores in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and Laguna Niguel, Calif. Alvarez also operated packinghouses for mangoes in Escuinapa, Mexico, and Guerrero, Mexico, as well as limes in Veracruz, Mexico.

Alvarez first gained notoriety, however, for his involvement in Roberto Alvarez vs. the Lemon Grove School Board, a school desegregation case in Lemon Grove, Calif., that predated the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by 23 years.

During the summer of 1930, the Lemon Grove School Board, under pressure from the families of its white students, said that its Mexican-American students were unable to keep up with their white peers in the classroom. The school board decided the children should attend classes in another building, a barn that would substitute as a school.

On Jan. 5, 1931, the Lemon Grove School prevented the Mexican-American students from entering and sent them to their new school, known as La Caballeriza (the stable).

Instead of attending another school, however, these families, led by then-12-year-old Alvarez and his family, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school board and named Alvarez as lead plaintiff.

The case went to trial in 1931, and hinged on the compelling testimony of Alvarez, who explained how the new school couldn’t provide the same academic challenges as Lemon Grove and would hurt the Mexican-American children’s opportunities for a decent education. The court eventually sided with the plaintiff, and they were allowed to return to the school. The case would eventually become the subject of a Public Broadcasting Service documentary, “The Lemon Grove Incident.”

Four of Alvarez’s children are involved with Coast Citrus, said Mica Simpson, a daughter and the firm’s executive assistant. Jimmy Alvarez is president. Stanley Alvarez is buying director, and Nicky Alvarez is manager of the company’s San Francisco facility, Simpson said.

“His initiative, his energy was just incredible,” Simpson said. “He always had vision. He was always seeking out new opportunities for the business.”

Other survivors include his wife, Margarita Alvarez, El Cajon; a son, Roberto Alvarez Jr. of Jamul, Calif.; two daughters, Guadalupe A. Cooper of Citrus Heights, Calif., and Sylvia Alvarez of San Diego; a sister, Mercedes Palmer of Lemon Grove, Calif.; a brother, Antonio Alvarez of San Diego; 21 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Details of a memorial scholarship have not yet been outlined.