Bert Corona

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Bert Corona

Bert Corona (born 1918), a union organizer who worked to provide Mexican Americans with better wages and living conditions.

Bert Corona was born into a revolutionary family. At the age of thirteen, his father, Noe, began to fight in the Mexican Revolution to overthrow the long and corrupt rule of Porfirio Díaz. He joined the forces of Pancho Villa, one of the most powerful rebels.

About 1911 Noe Corona was assigned to seal off Chihuahua City, which threatened to send out federal troops against Villa's forces. There he met Margarita Escápite Salayandía. Margarita and her mother, Ynez Salayandía y Escápite, were rebels in their own right. Both had decided to ignore the general feeling in Mexico that women should stay home, bear children, and restrict themselves to tending the household. Ynez became one of the few female doctors in Mexico, and Margarita became director of a teacher's college. Also, they were Protestants in a mostly Catholic country.

After fighting in the Battle of Juárez, which resulted in Díaz's fleeing the country, Noe returned to woo Margarita. The two married twice, in the Mexican city of Juárez and in El Paso, Texas. They settled in El Paso, and their first two children were born there. Bert was the second child and first son, born May 29, 1918.

Early life

Corona attended primary schools in El Paso. It was in these schools that he first experienced racism. Although he was spared because he already spoke English, other students were spanked and forced to wash their mouths with soap for speaking their own language, Spanish. Margarita objected to these actions so strongly that she took Bert out of the El Paso schools and sent him to a boarding school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He attended Harvard Boys School for the fourth and fifth grades. One of Corona's early protest experiences occurred in the fifth grade.

The Mexican students at Harvard often objected to the ideas of history presented by their Anglo teachers. For talking back to the teachers, some students were sent to the physical education teacher to be spanked. When the students protested, school administrators threatened to throw some of them out of school. The students organized a strike, refusing to attend class until their demands were met. It was successful in keeping the students from being expelled, forcing the physical education teacher to apologize, and putting a stop to spankings for just questioning a teacher. In his oral biography, Corona proudly remembers that "This was my first strike!" It would not be his last.

Athletic scholarship

Corona returned to El Paso and attended El Paso High School. There he played basketball on the varsity team, despite his young age—he had advanced through school so rapidly that he graduated high school at age sixteen. Corona was very young, so he played two years on El Paso community teams before accepting an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California.

In 1936 a full athletic scholarship was very different from the scholarships of later years. Corona found that his scholarship was really a recommendation to a company that was willing to hire him. An athletic scholarship meant that a student could work full-or part-time while playing university sports and studying. Corona began taking a full course of studies in commercial law while working nearly full-time at his "scholarship" job. Because he had worked for a medical drug company in El Paso, he found a job at the Brunswick Pharmaceutical Company. It was there that he got his first taste of labor organizing.

The Longshoremen's Union

Brunswick hired nearly 2,000 employees who were not yet organized by the labor unions. When the Longshoremen's Union decided to organize farm workers in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, Brunswick seemed to the union officers to be a good place to find help. The union asked Brunswick employees to help organize the farm workers. Corona accepted the invitation. He was always ready to support any cause he thought would help Mexican Americans, and many of the farm workers were Mexican immigrants.

Corona helped recruit union members and led them in strikes for better wages and better treatment by the farmers. In 1936, for example, he led 2,500 Mexican workers in a strike that stopped work on the region's $20-million orange crop.

Abandons college

Soon after he agreed to help the Longshoremen's Union with farm workers, the union also decided to organize warehouse workers, starting with the Brunswick company. At that time, medical warehouse workers were receiving half the pay of warehouse workers in the food industries. Corona agreed to help organize a union for Brunswick workers and was fired for his efforts. By this time, he had decided that helping unions was more important than his studies at the university. When Harry Bridges of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) offered him another job as a union organizer, Corona decided to temporarily abandon his college education. For nearly a decade, he served the CIO as an organizer for the canning and packing industries and for Allied Workers of America. Working with more seasoned organizers such as César Chávez, he learned to be an excellent organizer and his fame grew.

Politics

By 1948 Corona had grown concerned about the mistreatment of people who came from Mexico without the permission of the United States government. Two years later, he became regional organizer for the National Association of Mexican Americans. He gained a reputation for being able to influence Mexican American citizens. Becoming a member of the Northern California Democratic Campaign Committee, Corona actively supported Democratic candidates for the next two decades.

Undocumented workers

Corona also served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor and stepped up his efforts for those he called undocumented workers (and which the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] called illegal aliens). Corona spent more and more energy on behalf of the workers who had entered the United States without proper authorization.

After World War II, the INS stepped up its efforts to cancel work visas of Mexicans living in the San Diego area. As early as 1951, union leaders Phil and Albert Usquiano organized La Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (The Mexican National Brotherhood). Its purpose was to struggle against the INS in the San Diego area. In 1968 Corona brought this organization to Los Angeles and began to spread it across the nation. The Hermandad offered advice to undocumented workers about their rights under the United States Constitution. Corona and the other organizers of Hermandad believed that, once in the United States, the workers were entitled to the same protection under the Constitution as United States citizens.

The Hermandad also showed Mexicans in the United States how to organize to achieve better working conditions and better housing. Corona's Hermandad proved that undocumented workers could unite and win victories in the courts and in the fields. It offered support to those who had previously accepted terrible living and work conditions out of fear that the INS would deport them if they caused trouble. Soon the Hermandad was so busy with political action and recruiting that Corona found a need for a new social service organization.

CASA

The idea was that social services (rent control or assistance, medical aid, legal advice, and even some labor organization) would be better obtained by forming local groups. People within a given area would be served from an office in their own community. Each office could sometimes operate independently to serve special needs of the local community. Corona and his friends established CASA (Centros de Acción Social Autónomo, or Centers for Autonomous [Independent] Social Actions). But the word casa, which in Spanish means "home," was significant for another reason, too. It pointed up the community-based plan behind the organization. CASA began to serve Mexican communities in the United States much like earlier mutual assistance groups had served towns in Mexico. From time to time, CASA organized other groups for special purposes. The Coalition for Fair Immigration Laws and Practices began in 1978. The Casa Carnalismo was organized to fight drug dealing in Mexican communities. Sin Fronteras became an organization that stood for open borders, taking a stand in the controversy over illegal immigration. Women as well as men were active in organizing CASA and its offshoot organizations. Outstanding among them were Soledad "Chole" Alatorre and Blanche Taff.

"Chole" Alatorre

Alatorre was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where her father served as an officer in the Railroad Workers' Union. From him, she learned the value of organizing large groups of people to fight for a single cause. Alatorre married in Mexico, and she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where many Mexican nationals were working for low pay in the garment industries.

Alatorre easily found work making swimsuits in the Rosemary Reid Company. Soon the company made her a section supervisor, but because she was beautiful, its managers found they could save money by also using her as an advertising model. The freedom of the two jobs allowed Alatorre to inspect the whole plant, which led to her deciding that the garment workers needed to organize. But before she could organize enough workers, the plant moved.

Alatorre changed jobs and became a union steward and contract negotiator. In one company, she organized a strike that won better wages and work conditions. The unhappy owner then called the INS. Immigration agents found thirty-three undocumented workers in the company and threatened to take them back to Mexico. Alatorre sought help and found it in the Hermandad, which was led by Corona. She joined Hermandad and eventually became its national coordinator. Meanwhile, she joined Bert Corona in organizing CASA.

Blanche Taff

The daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, Blanche Taff was active in the Democratic Youth Federation. It was at one of the federation's fund-raising parties that she met Bert Corona. Taff dated Corona and began to support him on the picket lines of various strikes. Eventually the two eloped to Yuma, Arizona.

Blanche Corona faced a difficult situation. She supported Corona's efforts and wanted to join him in some of his activities. At first, however, Corona held to the old-fashioned notion about marriage that "the woman works at home." He had to yield to Blanche, though, when his own activities failed to bring in enough money to support a growing family. Thereafter, Blanche Corona became an active supporter of Corona's efforts and influenced the change of his view of women's roles. The couple formed a lasting bond and raised a family of three children: Margo, David, and Frank.

The fall of CASA

The Hermandad continued its efforts to recruit and support Mexicans everywhere in the United States. Corona believed that every organization required good and steady workers and recruited Hermandad members from the working-class Mexicans. By contrast, the home-based CASA was an organization in which college students, young business-people, and emerging politicians were the strongest workers. Eventually, these younger people took over CASA. They also took over Sin Fronteras in San Antonio and moved it to Los Angeles in 1975. The young people proved less patient than the older organizers and seemed unwilling to learn how to enlist others to work with them. In 1977 the director of Sin Fronteras objected to their tactics and resigned. CASA began to fade. Eventually, Corona withdrew from the organization. He still worked in Hermandad, however, and turned his attention to immigration laws.

The immigration laws

Throughout most of its history, the United States has had laws aimed at controlling the influx of immigrants to the country. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Act authorized the president to throw out any citizens believed to be a threat to the nation. Economic conditions in the 1800s encouraged importing low-wage workers to help with such activities as railroad building. Once here, however, the immigrants were viewed as threats. New laws banned immigration from some countries and limited them from others. In 1882 Chinese immigrants, at first welcomed as needed laborers, were refused admittance to the United States. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt threatened even stronger laws and persuaded the Japanese government to refuse to allow Japanese laborers to sail for America.

World War I upset Europe and resulted in large emigrations from that continent. The result was a wave of laws that set quotas, or limits, on immigrants to the United States. By 1929 the flow of new citizens to the United States had been reduced to 142,000 each year. Movement to the United States was further slowed by laws that demanded that immigrants be able to read and write English and show proof of the ability to support themselves. Not until 1965 were the quotas removed. Even then, newcomers to America were allowed to stay only if they had close relatives in the country, they had a profession, they had job skills needed in the United States, or they were refugees from their native countries.

Mexican immigrants

Mexico had once owned a large part of the southwestern United States, and many Mexicans thought they had claims to the land. Furthermore, Mexican workers had been encouraged to cross the border over the years to provide labor in industries such as agriculture and clothing manufacture. Also, many Mexican leaders in the United States believed that the border was an artificial one—that geography really made the Southwest and Mexico a single country. The thousand-mile-long border between the two countries had never been very well controlled, and for years Mexicans and U.S. citizens moved freely both ways across the line. Thus, Mexican workers had difficulty seeing why immigration authorities began to view Mexican workers who remained in the United States as "illegals." Over the years, the authorities placed stricter and stricter limits on immigration from Mexico. By the 1970s, as few as 20,000 Mexicans were allowed to enter the United States legally.

Corona and Hermandad began to oppose the INS in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He prepared information packages that told Mexican workers how they were protected under the U.S. Constitution. They did not have to incriminate themselves by giving information to the INS. Nor did they have to allow INS investigators into their homes without warrants. Agents of the INS often raided homes, farms, and businesses looking for illegal aliens. As the government stepped up such activity, some U.S. citizens were caught in raids and deported just because they looked Mexican. Corona's organization, Hermandad, began to take the INS to court. He helped find birth certificates and other legal documents that saved many people from being sent out of the country.

Stricter laws

New immigration laws were proposed to help the INS. These new laws tried to stop Mexicans from entering the United States for work by discouraging the employer from hiring them. Under the proposed laws, an employer would be guilty of a crime if the employer hired an "illegal."

Corona and his aides objected to such proposals. For example, Corona opposed the proposed Dixon Arnett Bill, which would have made employers liable for penalties if they hired "illegal aliens." This state bill was soon made a national issue by a proposal in Congress called the Rodino Bill. Corona also opposed this bill and succeeded in preventing its passage for several years. He argued that such a bill illegally turned employers into agents of the government. The idea would also be a burden on Mexicans who were working in the United States legally and even U.S. citizens who were of Mexican descent, who would become subject to suspicion because of their looks. To prevent this mistreatment of Mexican Americans, Father Theodore Hesburgh and his commission had proposed that Mexican immigrants be required to carry a national identification card. Corona argued that this would be an insult to Mexicans everywhere and would not solve the problem. Despite Corona's efforts, public pressure and prejudice against job competition from Mexicans finally led to the passage of a 1982 law that imposed penalties for hiring Mexican "illegals."

The public pressure stemmed from controversy over the illegal population, and debate continued after the 1982 law was passed. Like Corona, some Americans rose up to defend the rights of illegal immigrants. Others pointed to their effects on the larger population, arguing that they used up badly needed social services, which belonged to U.S. citizens.

The Immigration Act of 1986

In 1986 Congress passed a new immigration law. Although it stopped short of requiring Mexican immigrants to carry identification cards, it did hold employers responsible if they hired undocumented workers (workers without visas or work permits, called green cards). By this time, several million Mexican workers had settled in the United States. Many of them had not tried to become U.S. citizens for fear that the INS would deport them. The 1986 act attempted to remedy this situation by providing amnesty—Mexicans in the United States without documents could apply for citizenship without interference by the INS or other government agencies. The act appeared to be a step forward for Mexican Americans, and some accepted the invitation to become citizens.

Corona and Hermandad began to advise these potential citizens so they could benefit from the 1986 law. At the same time, Corona spoke out against it. In his view there were many flaws in the new law. The most serious problem was that it ignored millions of Mexican immigrants. The new law provided amnesty only for those who had come to the United States without documents before 1982. Strictly applied, even students and workers who had entered on visas before 1982 and stayed when the visas expired could not apply for citizenship under the new law.

The law also required proof that those applying for citizenship would not be a financial burden to the United States. While at times many American workers of all ethnic backgrounds request short-term welfare help, Mexicans could not apply for citizenship if they were on welfare during the amnesty period.

Mexican culture and heritage

Corona also opposed the act because it required applicants for citizenship to prove that they were learning the English language. This seemed to him to be an attempt to take away from the immigrants their Mexican culture and heritage, leaving Mexican Americans without roots to their past. He continued to speak out about these "flaws" in the 1986 Immigration Act even as he helped workers with their applications and need for instruction.

In spite of these "flaws," Corona's Hermandad encouraged Mexicans in the United States to take advantage of the opportunity to gain citizenship. Hermandad organized offices to help with the paperwork involved and classes to help with the English-language requirement. Altogether, Corona and Hermandad helped more than 160,000 Mexican Americans gain citizenship under the new act.

The struggle continues

In his lifetime, Bert Corona served as a union organizer, a champion of Mexican Americans, and a university teacher (Stanford University and California State University at Los Angeles). He has participated in many of the organizations that are considered to be politically left, even far left. (Left describes groups that sometimes advocate extreme measures to achieve equality and freedom for citizens.) While never joining the Communist party, Corona earnestly studied communism and socialism to find the good in these political movements. He has not been afraid to join any movement to defend the rights of workers and organize them for action, particularly workers of Mexican descent. Moreover, Corona himself has created major organizations to help Mexican Americans.

Because of Corona's work and that of others like him, great strides have been made toward helping Mexican Americans improve their position in the United States. Although Corona, now in his seventies, has backed off from some of his leadership roles, he continues to be active in Hermandad. In his words: "Will I ever retire? No. I want to be able to do more things and see more things. I think we're entering into a very exciting epoch. … A lot of things will be happening that I'd like to be around to participate in and to see."

Further Reading

García, Mario T., Memories of Chicano History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

García, Mario T., Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989.

Gutierrez, David G., CASA in the Chicano Movement, Working Paper Series, no. 5, Palo Alto: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, 1984.

Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. □

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