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By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
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For years, the sons and daughters of Alex Bernal smiled and sighed and nodded their heads in weary agreement whenever their elderly father uttered the same clichés he had shared with them since childhood. If you feel you’re right, fight for it, he’d say. Always fight to be better. Fight for your rights. Do things for everyone. Do what’s right. Don’t give up.
Bernal was beloved in his Fullerton neighborhood, a former produce-truck driver who helped anyone who needed a favor, the type of señor who in the evening drove around the fields and orchards of Orange County so he could offer shivering migrant workers a room for the night. But mere charity didn’t explain his obsession with justice, Bernal’s kids thought. He wasn’t a political activist, didn’t belong to any organizations, never allowed any particular issue to rile him up. He was just Dad to them, Mr. Bernal to everyone else.
“He was the type of man who, if he had a dollar to his name, he’d give it to you if you needed it,” says his son Alex Jr.
So, when a reporter for the Fullerton Observer called the Bernals on the morning of Alex’s funeral in January 1999, his daughter Patricia didn’t know what to say. The scribe was asking about a lawsuit involving her father from long ago, but the only time Patricia remembered her dad in a courtroom was in the 1980s for a divorce case involving her aunt. It wasn’t a good moment to talk, so Patricia passed off the phone to her youngest brother, Joseph. He also didn’t know about any lawsuit, but he decided to hear the reporter out.
After a couple of minutes, a dazed Joseph approached his older half-sister Irene. The Observer reporter had told Joseph that his father was a civil-rights icon, someone who stood up to white neighbors during the 1940s when they unsuccessfully sued him and his wife solely for being Mexicans who bought a house in their tract. A pioneer whose case was a turning point in the battles against school and housing segregation in Orange County and the United States. A hero who fought for his rights, who did things for everyone, did what was right and never gave up.
Joseph was shocked. Racism? Segregation? Against Mexicans? In Orange County? The younger Bernals had never experienced such nastiness, let alone heard of it. Irene confirmed the story but couldn’t share more—it was time for the family to grieve.
Days after Alex Bernal’s burial, Irene gave Patricia a dusty album of documents that her father had stowed away for decades. Patricia, who worked for a legal service, scanned hundreds of brittle, yellowing pages, made CDs and distributed them to the family. The Bernals read them over the next couple of weeks and learned of a secret past Alex kept from his children for decades, an episode that fundamentally changed the course of American civil rights.
* * *
Alejandro Bernal was born in Corona in 1914. His mother was from the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, his father an Arizonan with Spanish heritage. The Bernals moved to Fullerton shortly after that; Alex stayed there, save a couple of years, for the rest of his life. Unknown to them, they were setting roots in a city that was already hostile to the idea that the thousands of Mexicans who worked Fullerton’s bountiful orchards, canneries and fields also wanted to live there. In 1915, for instance, residents demanded that the city’s police department block Mexicans from leaving their houses after an outbreak of scarlet fever, according to Fullerton planning commission minutes. Four years later, hundreds of residents protested at a city council meeting after learning that the Santa Fe railroad planned to build housing for its Mexican workers near the company’s tracks.
In those days, Mexican children were actively discouraged from attending school by white teachers and administrators; Bernal attended St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s elementary for a couple of years, but he never advanced past that. After working in the fields through his teens, he saved money and bought a truck that he used to transport produce across Southern California. He lived with his parents on Truslow Avenue, the heart of Fullerton’s Mexican barrio. Just down the street stood the Sunnyside development, created in the 1920s as Fullerton’s latest neighborhood, a collection of charming Mission- and Craftsman-style homes.
Eventually, Bernal married Esther Muñoz de Anda, a native of Mexico, and the two moved into an apartment in La Habra’s barrio in 1938. The couple had two girls, Maria Theresa and Irene, and decided their growing family needed more room. While visiting his mother in February 1943, Bernal happened to see a house for sale off Ash Avenue in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
“Daddy was that way,” says Maria Theresa, now in her 60s, with the excitable energy of someone half her age. “He tried to improve himself, always. He probably didn’t see moving into the neighborhood as anything important—he just wanted a better neighborhood for us.”