Corona, Bert: 1918-2001: Labor Organizer
Bert Corona: 1918-2001: Labor organizer
Bert Corona, a longtime leader in Latino civil-rights circles, died in early 2001 after nearly seventy years of public service. Following a career as a union organizer, Corona served for many years as executive director of La Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Latino organization in the Los Angeles area that fought on behalf of undocumented Mexicans and other Latinos in the United States. Corona was by all accounts a dedicated and tireless organizer, and often evoked comparisons to César Chávez, the migrant-labor leader. He once contributed an autobiographical essay to Memories of Chicano History, edited by Mario Garcia. According to Progressive, he stated in Memories: "I never planned my life," Corona reflected. "It just happened the way it did. I'm proud that I was able at certain times to help organize a plant or a community group and that these organizations helped people struggle to better their lives."
El Paso Childhood
Corona was born in El Paso, Texas in 1918. Both parents were of a progressive mind: his father Noe had, during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, fought on the side of the Partido Liberal Mexicano. During his military service he met a Chihuahua City woman, Margarita Escápite Salayandía, who ran the local teachers' college. After the Mexican conflict ended, the pair wed in Juárez and then again El Paso. Corona was the second of their children, but Noe Corona was slain in the early 1920s, and Corona and his sister were raised by their mother and maternal grandmother, who had been a physician in Chihuahua City. He attended public schools in El Paso, but during the 1920s children of Mexican heritage were forbidden to speak their language at school, and transgressions against this rule were punished harshly. Margarita Corona objected to such tactics as forcing children to wash their mouths out with soap, and for a time Corona was transferred to a boarding school in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Corona was a standout basketball player at El Paso High School, and graduated at the age of sixteen. Ineligible to become a college athlete at that age, he played on El Paso community teams until 1936, when he accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC). He was surprised at the differences between Los Angeles Latinos in 1936 and those back home in El Paso. In Texas Corona had been proud of his Mexican heritage; one day on a Los Angeles streetcar asked two Mexican-American men for directions in Spanish. They ignored him, but followed him at his exit, and told him that in Los Angeles it was wiser to speak English.
At a Glance . . .
Born May 29, 1918, in El Paso, TX; died of kidney failure, January 15, 2001, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Noe and Margarita (Escápite Salayandía) Corona; married Blanche Taff (a union organizer; died, 1993); married Angelina Casillas (an English instructor); children: (first marriage) Margo, David, Frank, Ernesto.
Career: Longshoremen's Union, Orange County, CA, organizer; Congress of Industrial Organizations, organizer, canning and packing industries, beginning 1930s; Allied Workers of America, organizer; Brunswick Pharmaceutical Co., 1930s; U.S. Dept. of Labor, consultant; faculty member: Stanford University and California State University at Los Angeles.
Memberships: Centros de Acción Social Autónomo (Centers for Autonomous (Independent) Social Actions), cofounder, organizer, until 1977; National Association of Mexican Americans, regional organizer, beginning 1950; Northern California Democratic Campaign Committee; La Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (Mexican National Brotherhood), organizer, beginning 1968.
During his time at USC, while studying commercial law, Corona also worked for a drug company. The position with Brunswick Pharmaceutical Company led to a job with the local Longshoremen's Union organizing farm workers in Orange County. The agribusiness in the Southern California region depended on Latino labor, and Corona helped the workers carry out successful strikes for wage increases and fair treatment. He was so enthused by this work that he dropped out of college altogether. He took his next job with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a union organizer, then did similar work on behalf of the United Cannery, Agriculture, Packing and Allied Workers of America. For a time in the 1940s he even served as president of Local 26 of the Longshoremen's Union.
Corona's labor activities drew him into political matters. In 1938 he worked with labor organizer Luisa Moreno to form one of the first nationwide groups of its kind, the League of Spanish-Speaking People. He also organized chapters on behalf of the Community Service Organization and worked with La Asociación Nacional Mexico-Americana (ANMA); through these activities he met César Chávez. By 1960 he had co-founded National Association of Mexican Americans, one of the first Latino political organizations in California, which organized "Viva Kennedy" groups to give Latino voter support to Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy.
Fought Crackdowns on Undocumented Latinos
But Latinos who were ineligible to vote eventually became Corona's main focus. For many years, the border between the United States and Mexico was a relatively open one; Mexicans were encouraged to cross and provide a temporary work force for the growing agriculture and textile industries in California and southwestern United States. Moreover, many Mexicans believed that the border itself was a moot point, since a large section of the American Southwest had originally belonged to Mexico. During World War II, the U.S. government sponsored a guest-worker program to combat labor shortages in the San Diego area, but later federal officials began actively trying to deport some of them; two San Diego union leaders, Phil and Albert Usquiano, founded La Hermandad Mexicana in 1951 to help fight this.
Corona became active in La Hermandad Mexicana, one of the few Latino organizations to help undocumented aliens. Even Chávez opposed their presence, for undocumented workers had sometimes been used against his own union, the United Farm Workers, as strikebreakers. In 1968 Corona opened a Los Angeles branch of La Hermandad Mexicana, and from there established an auxiliary organization, Centros de Acción Social Autónomo, or Centers for Autonomous (Independent) Social Actions (CASA), that gave undocumented Mexicans and other Latinos help with obtaining housing aid, medical care, and legal advice. Its community centers soon became focal points for neighborhood political action. Corona was adamant in his belief that undocumented immigrants should benefit from the same protections as citizens of the United States or permanent resident aliens. Once inside U.S. borders, Corona often stated, the laws applied to everybody.
CASA was eventually taken over by a more radical student element, and Corona's involvement with the organization ended. Yet by 1976 he had made La Hermandad Mexicana a national organization, with branch offices all over California as well as in Chicago and Washington, D.C. In 1978 he was active in the formation of the Coalition for Fair Immigration Laws and Practices. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was becoming increasingly hostile in its actions against undocumented aliens in California, and some lawmakers and citizens supported harsher laws and penalties. For many years, Corona and La Hermandad fought proposed legislation that would require employers to ask potential hires for proof of citizenship or residency. It was eventually unsuccessful, for the Immigration Act of 1986 was passed into law, but the Act also included an amnesty program for undocumented aliens who had entered the country before 1982.
Corona and La Hermandad dealt with the new Immigration Act on several fronts. He believed that the amnesty clause unfairly excluded thousands from protection, and tried to find ways to encourage these Latinos to pursue the citizenship process without fear of deportation. He also objected to one of the requirements in the citizenship application process, which forced applicants to prove that they were learning the English language. Hermandad, however, provided English-language classes as well as citizenship courses. It also received federal funds earmarked for such efforts, and buoyed by this, its membership increased dramatically. By 1992, when the federal funding came to an end, Corona's La Hermandad Mexicana Nacional had helped some 160,000 Latinos became citizens. Mario T. Garcia, a history professor at UC-Santa Barbara, told the Los Angeles Times, "He [Corona] did what no one else had successfully done—organize undocumented workers."
Corona's organization suffered financially after the funding ceased, and took on increasing debt to stay active. Corona was still serving as its executive director when he traveled to Mexico to visit relatives in 2001. He fell ill there and underwent three operations in Leon; he was later transferred to a Los Angeles hospital, where he died on January 15, 2001. He was survived by his second wife, Angelina Casillas, and four children with his first wife, Blanche Taff.
In the Memories of Chicano History volume, Corona responded to a question about how history might remember him. "Frankly, I never concerned myself with a place in history," he wrote. "I've been busy organizing and working with others. If my life has meant anything, I would say that it shows that you can organize workers and poor people if you work hard, are persistent, remain optimistic, and reach out to involve as many people as possible."
Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, Gale, 1998.
Profiles of American Labor Unions, second edition, Gale, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2001, p. B10; January 23, 2001, p. B1; March 19, 2001, p. B1.
Progressive, August 2001, p. 26.
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