David Bacon Stories & Photographs
El Valiente Chicano
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA (1/19/01) -- Bert Corona belonged to that heroic generation that gave us social security, unemployment insurance and industrial unions. It was a generation hardened by the great depression -- the Los Angeles of Corona's youth was the scene of violent industrial wars at North American Aviation and on the waterfront. It was the Los Angeles where immigrants arriving in the wake of the Mexican Revolution were met with the business end of police billy clubs, the city of Sleepy Lagoon -- where blacks and Latinos sat in one section of movie theaters, and whites in another.

Some might say LA hasn't changed that much. But what once was the open shop city is becoming a union town. The key to getting elected now in LA and Orange County is winning the votes of hundreds of thousand of active working-class Latinos. And the last decade saw a hundred thousand sin papeles march against anti-immigrant hysteria, their strikes and organizing drives sweep through industry after industry, and twenty thousand undocumented and legal residents rally in the sports arena, under the banner of the AFL-CIO.

If this is not the same world Bert Corona was born into, it is certainly one he helped create.

Corona, who died on January 15 at 82, was a child of the border, so it was no surprise that the line in the sand between the U.S. and Mexico, and the problems of the millions of people crossing it, dominated his life.

Corona's father was a comandante in Francisco Villa's Division del Norte, one of the two main insurgent armies of the Mexican Revolution. Villa himself was the sponsor at his parents' wedding in the Juarez customs house.

After Villa was defeated by counter-revolutionaries, Noe Corona brought his wife, a schoolteacher, and mother-in-law, a doctor, to El Paso, where Bert Corona was born. Noe then returned to Mexico, where he was assassinated by Villa's enemies. Bert grew up moving back and forth between Juarez, Chihuahua and El Paso, in an era when crossing the border was an ordinary activity, not like traversing a no-mans' land between two hostile armies, as it is today.

Corona came to Los Angeles to study at USC, where he went to work and was caught up in the labor ferment of the late 1930s. He became president of Local 26 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and a political ally of Harry Bridges, one of U.S. labor's most progressive and democratic leaders. That labor experience was welded to the revolutionary history of Corona's family to frame his understanding of the world.

"Bert saw Mexicanos in the United States, not just as a people suffering racial and national discrimination, but as a working-class community, exploited for their labor," says Nativo Lopez, who helped Corona organize the Hermandad Mexicana, a community organization of Mexican workers, and worked with him for the last three decades. "He believed that change would come about by creating organization and leaders among grassroots people, in unions and in the neighborhoods."

But Corona was not a pure-and-simple unionist. Looking at the huge mass of Mexican immigrants populating LA barrios, he saw not just a population excluded from the political mainstream, but a very different future in which their votes would eventually shape the politics of the city and the state. The base of Mexican labor that developed the southwest over the last century could, Corona dreamed, become as important politically as it was economically, acquiring a voice, and even more important, power in its own right. In that sense, the growing ranks of Latino political leaders nationally owe a debt to Corona and his coworkers, who spent decades fighting to build political organizations to empower Latinos.

Corona became a leader of El Congreso Nacional del Pueblo de Habla Espanola, and after the war, the Associacion Nacional Mexicano Americano. Both were leftwing organizations of militant Mexicanos, with close ties to the industrial unions of the CIO. It was the era when the leftwing of the U.S. labor movement was at the peak of its political strength. Much of that history is unknown to today's activists, who see globalization and immigration as issues which have just arrived on the political radar screen. Yet, during a period when he lived in northern California, Corona organized an ANMA chapter among smelter workers employed by the American Smelting and Refining Co. Decades before the current cross-border organizing movement was born, these workers launched sympathy strikes in solidarity with coworkers employed by the same company in Mexico and Latin America.

ANMA also organized braceros. The bracero program brought workers from Mexico into the U.S. from the 40s to the 60s, housing them in huge, fenced-in barracks in rural areas, where they toiled in the fields for the growers for extremely low wages. Leaders like Corona, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez and others struggled to end the program, since braceros were not only exploited themselves, but used to undermine wages and efforts by farm workers to form unions. ANMA did not just lobby against the program, however, but sought to organize the workers.

That idea became a hallmark of Corona's approach to immigration. After the program was ended, immigrants without papers continued to come to the U.S., driven by hunger and poverty. Conservative unions of the coldwar era were very hostile, calling for deportations and measures to try to ban them from jobs, saying the undocumented couldn't be organized. Corona never stopped fighting that idea, and helped organize a radical immigrant rights group, CASA, to prove it wrong. Some of LA's most prominent Latino political leaders, including Antonio Villaraigosa and Gil Cedillo, have political roots in that struggle.

Although Corona and Cesar Chavez were allies through the years, they fought over that problem. In the wake of the 1973 grape strike, when workers without papers were brought in by growers to defend their sweetheart agreements with the Teamsters and break the UFW, Chavez also became hostile to the undocumented. Corona openly criticized the union for that, which Chavez felt as a betrayal. But eventually the UFW returned to organizing all workers, regardless of immigration status, and when Corona published his autobiography in 1994, he dedicated the book to Chavez' memory.

Corona's ultimate vindication came last year, when the AFL-CIO itself adopted a new pro-immigrant policy, calling for amnesty for undocumented workers and an end to employer sanctions, which make it illegal for them to hold a job. At the end of his political life, he was finally honored at the labor federation's huge rally for amnesty at the sports arena in June.

"To those of us who became active in the immigrant rights movement in the 70s and 80s, Bert was a veteran," says Cathi Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "We often saw ourselves as the radicals, but really we had a lot to learn. He helped us understand that we needed an alliance with the labor movement, towards which he was both respectful and critical at the same time."

When Corona went to Washington to lobby for immigrant rights, she remembers, he took 200 grassroots activists with him. After spending the day trooping from office to office on Capitol Hill, they slept on the floor of the Council of Churches office in sleeping bags. "He was able to inspire ordinary people," she says, "and give them a sense of history, that they could do things themselves."

Corona was an unrepentant radical. "If by socialism," he wrote in his autobiography, Memories of Chicano History, "we mean someone who believes that the principal means of production should be regulated by government or by the people in the form of coops, then I would call myself a socialist." But his vision was a very indigenous one. "I believe in the American dream," he told Mario Garcia, who collaborated on the book, "or at least in my version of it. I interpret it as a hope and a wish, which has not been completely fulfilled for all Americans such as Latinos and other racial minorities. It's similar to the dream of the Mexican Revolution, which also promised freedom, equality and democracy. Clearly, that hasn't been fully achieved. In both cases, they're unfulfilled dreams."

Corona was not an isolated voice on the margin. He helped found the Mexican American Political Association. He worked in the Democratic Party, trying to force it to deal with the political aspirations of Mexicanos and workers. He supported the early political careers of Mexicano and African-American politicians, from former Congressman Edward Roybal to the late state Senator Byron Rumford, author of California's Fair Housing Act.

Carlos Muņoz, professor of Chicano Studies at UC Berkeley, was a student leader in the Los Angeles school blowouts of the 1960s. He recalls that this new generation of activists "was very down on the old generation of political leaders, who we saw as accomodationist." But Corona was viewed differently, he remembers. "We saw him as an extraordinary guy. He was a good warrior." When La Raza Unida Party was organized, Muņoz and others wanted Corona to become one of its leaders. "But he was more focused on organizing the undocumented, whom he saw as the most oppressed."

Nevertheless, "Bert saw that our struggle for immigrant rights and Mexicano political power was tied to much larger movements," Lopez says. Corona was a national officer of the 1980s' most powerful peace group, SANE-FREEZE. He helped Jesse Jackson found the Rainbow Coalition, and was co-chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

When Lopez himself became the target of "B-1 Bob" Dornan and the Republican right, after Dornan's defeat at the hands of Loretta Sanchez in Orange County, "Bert told me: 'Don't leave. Stay and fight.'" Dornan, one of the most conservative members of Congress, and a longtime legislative advocate for armaments manufacturers, alleged that Lopez and the Hermandad Mexicana had registered non-citizens to vote. The LA Times put the subsequent investigations on its front page day after day. In the end, Lopez was vindicated. But there was no doubt about the message of the Orange County election, and Dornan did indeed have something to fear: Sanchez' career in Congress is living proof of the growing power of the Latino vote.

"That was typical of Bert," says Eliseo Medina, a former UFW leader who today is vice-president of the Service Employees International Union. "He didn't just put his finger up to see which way the wind was blowing. He took a principled stand and stuck to it."

Another veteran of the farm labor wars, Alfredo Figueroa, calls Corona "a father of the modern-day Chicano movement." Figueroa summed up Corona's life in Mexican style, writing a corrido on hearing of his death. It ends with these verses:

The U.S. government
never offered you its hand
or appreciated the efforts
of this valiant Chicano.

Nevertheless you decided
to fight against their system,
and organized a movement
crying "Long live the union!"

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