Mi Casa Es Mi Casa

How Fullerton resident Alex Bernal's 1943 battle against housing discrimination helped change the course of American civil rights

At Alex’s urging, Esther visited the bank to sign the necessary paperwork and pay for the house. The bankers thought she was the new homeowner’s maid, so they didn’t think twice of selling it. It wasn’t until three days after the Bernals moved in that the former owner told them they “might get into a little trouble” with neighbors.

Written into the deeds of all Sunnyside lots was a clause that read, “No portion of said property shall at any time be used, leased, owned or occupied by any Mexicans or person other than of the Caucasian race.” Sunnyside was just one of hundreds of neighborhoods in Southern California that enforced such housing covenants in an attempt to keep the region’s burgeoning minority population segregated from whites.

Undeterred, the Bernals decided to stay.

The historic Bernal house in the 1960s, shortly before Alex sold it
Historical photo courtesy the Bernal family / Photo by John Giilhooley
The historic Bernal house in the 1960s, shortly before Alex sold it
The historic Bernal house today
Kimberly Valenzuela
The historic Bernal house today

Within a week, someone broke into the house and threw the Bernals’ belongings onto the street. Soon, everyone else in the neighborhood—50 people in total—signed a petition asking the Bernals to move. When that didn’t work, the neighbors hired lawyer Guss Hagenstein to file an injunction against the Bernals and force their removal from their house. On April 30, barely a month after the Bernals had moved in, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy posted on their front door a summons to appear in Orange County Superior Court.

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The lawsuit—filed by Sunnyside residents Ashley and Anna Doss, Oliver and Virginia Schrunk, and Charles and Marjorie Hobson on behalf of their neighbors—explained they were “informed and believe” that the Bernals “are both persons known as Mexicans” who lived on their street. As a result, they claimed, the Bernals caused “irreparable injury” to the neighborhood by “lowering . . . the class of persons” and “social living standard,” and that allowing the Bernals to stay would lead to other minorities coming in, which “would necessitate coming in contact with said other races, including Mexicans, in a social and neighborhood manner.” The plaintiffs asked the court to ban the Bernals from living in their own home. Also listed in the suit: John and Jane Doe and Richard and Mary Roe, unnamed Mexicans the plaintiffs insisted also lived at the Bernal residence.

Instead of leaving, the Bernals hired Los Angeles attorney David C. Marcus. The child of a Jewish immigrant from the country of Georgia (in what was then the Russian empire), Marcus already represented the Mexican consul in Los Angeles on various matters. The lawyer crafted a legal argument that had never succeeded in an American courtroom: that Mexicans were subject to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and that housing covenants violated both the 14th Amendment and the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Bernals’ case seemed doomed from the start. Court records indicate that a Judge Morrison issued a ruling against the Bernals, but Marcus successfully petitioned to have another judge brought in all the way from Shasta County: Albert F. Ross. The case was tied up in legal wrangling, with Hagenstein seeking an immediate injunction with no trial and Marcus wanting it heard before a judge. All the while, to spare the young family more indignities, they lived with Alex’s mother, Ramona, in her Truslow Avenue home.

Doss, et al. v. Bernal, et al. was finally heard in late August 1943. Hagenstein brought in real-estate appraisers who testified that having Mexicans live in a neighborhood brought down property values by at least half and anthropologists who claimed Mexicans were not Caucasians. He tried to establish that the Bernals moved in with full knowledge of the covenants and that they had allowed “other persons who are Mexicans” to live with them. It wasn’t racist to not want Mexicans in Sunnyside, Hagenstein maintained; it was common sense.

The plaintiffs parroted Hagenstein’s strategy. According to a trial transcript, Charles Hobson insisted in a deposition he wasn’t racist against Mexicans; he simply wanted to protect his property value. “It isn’t my opinion,” the mechanic said when Marcus pressed him to prove that Mexicans brought down home values. “Take a look at Placentia for yourself.”

Marcus’ courtroom actions are largely unknown; records are missing, but a short newspaper clipping quoted him as stating in closing arguments that the action of Bernal’s neighbors “was taken from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” Depositions show that Marcus objected to Hagenstein’s badgering of Esther when he kept insisting that the Bernals had allowed other Mexicans to live with them, charges Esther strenuously denied. And in one heated exchange, after Hagenstein ridiculed Marcus’ line of questioning, Marcus snapped, “You keep your remarks to yourself, and let’s not get personal about it. Whether I get myself into a jam and whether I want to extricate myself, that is my affair.”

Ross issued his ruling on Aug. 23, after four days of testimony from the two sides: The Bernals could stay in their house, and the plaintiffs had to pay their legal fees. Ross wrote in an opinion that housing covenants “have a tendency to be . . . injurious to the public good and society; violative of the fundamental form and concepts of democratic principles” and that he agreed with Marcus’ contention that such discrimination violated the Fifth and 14th amendments. Taking note of the ethnic stock of most of Sunnyside’s residents, Ross gave them a dose of their own venom. “I do feel there is a paranoia among the German people,” he remarked in court. “I don’t think Hitler is the only one. I would rather have people of the type of the Bernals living next door to me than Germans of the paranoiac type now living in Germany.”

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