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Photo by David BaconBert Corona belonged to the generation that gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance and industrial unions. It was a generation hardened by the Great Depression—in the Los Angeles of Corona's youth, violent industrial wars erupted at North American Aviation and on the waterfront. It was a city in which 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 much. But the open-shop city is becoming a union town; the key to getting elected in LA and North Orange County now is winning the votes of hundreds of thousands of active, working-class Latinos. If this is not the same world Bert Corona was born into, then it is certainly one he helped create.
Corona, who died on Jan. 15 at age 82, came to Los Angeles from Texas 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 experience was welded to the revolutionary history of Corona's family—his father rode with Pancho Villa.
"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 has worked with him for the past three decades. "He believed that change would come about by creating organization and leaders among grassroots people in unions and the neighborhoods."
But Corona was not a pure-and-simple unionist. Looking at the huge mass of Mexican immigrants in LA barrios, he saw not only a population excluded from the political mainstream but also 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 past century could, Corona predicted, become as important politically as it was economically, acquiring a voice and, even more important, power in its own right.
While many of today's activists see globalization and immigration as issues that have just arrived on the political radar screen, Corona organized sympathy strikes in LA for workers in Mexico and Latin America shortly after the end of World War II.
He also organized braceros—workers brought from Mexico into the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1960s who were housed in huge, fenced-in barracks in rural areas and toiled 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 were also used to undermine wages and efforts by farm workers to form unions. Corona did not just lobby against the program, however, but sought to organize the workers, an idea that became a hallmark of his approach to immigration.
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 co-ops, then I would call myself a socialist."
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-chairperson of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
When Lopez was targeted by Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan and the Republican Right after Dornan's 1996 defeat at the hands of Loretta Sanchez, Lopez recalls, Corona told him, "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 Nacional had registered noncitizens to vote. The Los Angeles Times put Dornan's subsequent accusations on its front page day after day. In the end, Lopez was vindicated. But there was no doubt about the message of the election, and Dornan did indeed have something to fear: Sanchez's 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 is now 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."