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Vel Avaliente Chicano

Bert Corona belonged to that heroic generation that gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance and industrial unions. 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.

What once was the open-shop city is becoming a union town. The key to getting elected now in L.A. and Orange counties is winning the votes of hundreds of thousands of active working-class Latinos. And the last decade saw 100,000 sin papeles march against anti-immigrant hysteria, as well as their strikes and organizing drives sweeping through industry after industry. And it saw 20,000 undocumented and legal residents rallying in the Sports Arena, under the banner of the AFL-CIO.

Bert Corona helped create this new world.

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. He 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 Nacional, 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.”

Corona was not a pure and simple unionist. Looking at the huge mass of Mexican immigrants populating L.A. 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. 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 involved in El Congreso Nacional del Pueblo de Habla Española and, after the war, the Asociacion Nacional Mexico Americana (ANMA). Both were left-wing organizations of militant Mexicanos, with close ties to the industrial unions of the CIO. It was the era when the left wing 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 only just appeared 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 worked in the fields 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 depress wages and undermine 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 Cold War era were very hostile, calling for deportations and measures to ban them from jobs, saying the undocumented couldn’t be organized. Corona never stopped fighting that idea and helped lead a radical immigrant-rights group, CASA, to prove it wrong. Some of L.A.‘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 the issue of undocumented workers. In the wake of the 1973 grape strike, when workers without papers were brought in by growers to defend their sweetheart agreement with the Teamsters and break the United Farm Workers (UFW), Chavez also became hostile to the undocumented. Corona openly criticized the union for that, which Chavez considered a betrayal. But eventually the UFW returned to organizing all workers, regardless of immigration status, and in Corona’s authorized biography, published in 1994, Corona dedicated the book to Chavez‘s 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 these workers 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.

Corona was an unrepentant radical. “If by socialism,” he noted in his biography, 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 co-ops, then I would call myself a socialist.” But his vision was a very indigenous one. “I believe in the American dream,” he told Mario T. 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.”

But 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 politicians of color, from former Congressman Edward Roybal to the late mayor of Oakland Lionel Wilson.

“He 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, SANEFreeze. He helped Jesse Jackson establish the Rainbow Coalition, and was co-chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

When Lopez himself became the target of 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, alleged that Lopez and the Hermandad Mexicana had registered non-citizens to vote. The L.A. Times put the subsequent investigations on its front page day after day. But in the end, Lopez was vindicated, and Sanchez’s career in Congress is living proof of the power of the Latino vote.

“That was typical of Bert,” says Eliseo Medina, a former UFW leader who today is executive 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 upon hearing of his death:

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!”