Corona, Bert 1918–2001
Bert Corona was one of the great leaders in the Chicano struggle against racism, ethnic and cultural discrimination, and class exploitation. Although less well known than his contemporary César Chávez, Corona is equally as important in Chicano and U.S. history. Both leaders did what no one else had ever done before: Chávez successfully organized farm workers, while Corona successfully organized undocumented immigrant workers. Corona’s life spanned the major periods of twentieth-century Chicano history. But he not only observed history, he made history.
Corona’s parents were part of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. His father, Noe Corona, was a follower of Pancho Villa and a member of Villa’s elite fighting unit, “Los Dorados.” He was assassinated in 1921 while attempting to resurrect the Villa movement. Corona never knew his father, but the memories of his father as a fighter for social justice would instill in him the same values. In addition, his mother and his grandmother always socialized Corona and his siblings to care for the poor and the oppressed. These principles would become the center of his life.
Corona was born in El Paso, Texas, on May 29, 1918. After graduating from high school, he migrated to Los Angeles and got work at a downtown warehouse in the late 1930s, when the militant Longshoremen’s Union affiliated with the CIO was organizing that industry. Corona joined the union and quickly became one of its major leaders, helping to organize the unskilled and largely immigrant workforce of various ethnic backgrounds.
It was in the union movement that Corona cut his teeth as an organizer. Here he would learn the importance of building coalitions among different ethnic groups and constructing organizations from the grass roots to include not only workers but also their families. Corona also immersed himself in Mexican-American community affairs. He was involved with the Mexican American Movement (MAM), which lasted from late 1937 to 1945 and encouraged Chicano students to stay in school and to consider going to college, and he was part of the Spanish-Speaking Congress (1939–1945), which focused on civil rights and organizing Chicano workers into the CIO unions. After serving in World War II, Corona returned to Los Angeles to resume his community work. In the late 1940s, he became one of the principal organizers for the Community Service Organization (CSO) in California. He traveled the state for the CSO, registering Mexican-American voters. This work led to the successful election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angles City Council in 1949. Roybal was the first Mexican American elected to that body since the late nineteenth century, and he went on to win a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1962.
In the 1950s, Corona also became a key organizer for ANMA (Associación Nacional México-Americana). ANMA was an offshoot of the progressive Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which was very influential among Mexican-American workers in the Southwest. In California, Corona assisted in the unionization of Latino workers and provided civil rights support. Part of this work consisted of supporting the strikes organized by braceros, the contract workers from Mexico being imported to the United States at that time.
In 1960 Corona, along with Roybal and others, started the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), which became the principal Latino political and electoral group in the country. It spearheaded civil rights issues for Mexican Americans concerning education, housing, jobs, health, and police brutality. At the same time, MAPA became the first national Latino electoral organization to actively participate in presidential politics. Corona, for example, was one of the key organizers for the campaign of President Lyndon Johnson in California in 1964. Four years later, he was a national codirector of the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign, which ended in tragedy with the assassination of Kennedy following his victory in the June primary in California.
The death of Robert Kennedy, whom Corona was very close to, shifted Corona’s attention away from electoral politics and back toward community organizing. He joined and soon led the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, which became the largest self-help organization for undocumented immigrant workers in the United States. For more than thirty years, Corona served as its executive director, organizing thousands of Latino undocumented workers and their families in the struggle to protect themselves against repressive anti-immigrant legislation and movements such as California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. As part of this effort, he also organized CASA (Centro de Acción Social Autónomo) as the Hermandad’s political wing.
Through his values and his work, Corona inspired and educated numerous Latinos who have gone on to become labor, community, and political leaders in their own right. Even in the months before his death on January 15, 2001, while confined to a wheelchair, Corona lobbied for immigrant rights. When he entered a room, he became the center of attention due to the respect he commanded. When asked when he might retire, he said, “No, I can’t, because we still have so many struggles ahead of us.” Bert Corona died as he would have wanted, working for social justice and against racism, and trying to make this country live up to its ideals, especially for its most marginalized people.
———. 1994. Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mario T. Garcia