Mi Casa Es Mi Casa

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

But Miller was wrong—it was Doss v. Bernal that first successfully argued against housing covenants. There’s no suggestion in Miller’s papers, held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, that he ever heard of the case or used it as legal precedent in his anti-segregation lawsuits, despite the widespread publicity at the time of the decision in Southern California’s African-American community.

Nevertheless, the Bernal case did create a civil-rights tidal wave. In the fall of 1943, a group of Mexican parents in San Bernardino decided to sue the city because it allowed Mexicans and African-Americans to swim in the public pool only on the day before workers cleaned it. Their lawyer, Marcus, successfully argued Lopez v. Seccombe in federal district court in 1945, again using the Fifth and 14th amendments as his legal hammers against segregation. The publicity for this case convinced a group of Mexican parents in Orange County to hire Marcus for their lawsuit challenging school segregation in Orange County; Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. preceded the more-famous Brown v. Board of Education by a decade (see “Separate But Unequal,” Nov. 6, 2009). They found Marcus after Bernal had passed along the attorney’s card to a fellow produce-truck driver. Filing an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Mendez, et al. once that case reached a federal appeals court was none other than Miller.

Despite its achievement, Doss v. Bernal disappeared from history, never making it into legal proceedings to be cited as precedent, not even in Hernandez v. Texas, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that found Mexicans were afforded protection from discrimination under the 14th Amendment. It’s in a few academic books, usually garnering a sentence, maybe two. No Orange County history book mentions it, and no historian the Weekly contacted for this story had ever heard of the case.

Some of Alex Bernal's descendants: Angelica, Joseph and Alex Jr. (Back row, from left); Patricia (back row, second from right); Maria (middle row, second from left); and cute grandkids throughout
John Gilhooley
Some of Alex Bernal's descendants: Angelica, Joseph and Alex Jr. (Back row, from left); Patricia (back row, second from right); Maria (middle row, second from left); and cute grandkids throughout
The photo that appeared in Time featured (from left) Esther, Irene, Alex and Maria Theresa
Historical photo courtesy the Bernal family / Photo by John Giilhooley
The photo that appeared in Time featured (from left) Esther, Irene, Alex and Maria Theresa

The case’s biggest champion has been Luis F. Fernandez, a graduate student at Cal State Fullerton who will receive his master’s degree in history this month. In preparation last year for the comprehensive exams that were part of his graduation requirements, he learned about the Bernal case in a book called Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America. The discovery of the Bernal proceedings “blew me away,” says Fernandez, a Garden Grove native. He shared the find with his fellow graduate students—none of whom believed that housing covenants against Mexicans ever existed in Orange County.

Fernandez has researched the case intermittently since, hoping to publish a scholarly paper on the case and eventually do a book about the segregation Mexicans faced in Orange County. “I want to show that Mexicans were not docile or passive, as historically portrayed, but rather resisted,” he says. “It’s amazing no one picked up the Bernal case, but it’s typical Orange County: It’s one of those stories that show we imagine a different community than it really was.”

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Part of its uncelebrated status is attributable to Bernal himself. He never lived in the Sunnyside house after the case was decided. Just two years later, Esther died of cancer at 29. A heartbroken Alex kept the house, but he moved in with his mother and rented out his property. Once his daughters were older, he bought another house in Fullerton. He sold the Sunnyside property in 1965; the neighborhood is now almost exclusively Latino.

“It was a very traumatic experience for Dad,” says Irene, who seems every bit the sweet woman her shock of white hair and granny spectacles would suggest. “He never talked about it to anyone.”

One day, as teens, she and Maria Theresa joined their father on a visit to the Sunnyside house. While looking through their late mother’s jewelry in the garage, the two came across an album with letters and documents. They asked about their father about the album—the very album Irene would present to her young siblings decades later. “We kind of knew they had trouble with the house, but he held the story from us,” Irene says. “That day, Dad told me the whole story.”

He never mentioned the case to Irene or Maria Theresa again.

Life moved on. Irene herself experienced housing discrimination during the 1960s when she tried to rent an apartment in Fullerton despite her light skin; when she sent her white husband to do the same, the young couple got it with no problems.

Maria Theresa married a man who lived across the street from the son of Virginia Schrunk, one of the plaintiffs who had sued the Bernals. She didn’t mind. “You can’t hold something against a son who didn’t do what was done,” she says.

Bernal married for the third time in 1970 and started a new family. (A second marriage ended in divorce.) He never told them about the housing discrimination case, either. They knew Marcus, as he had become a family friend, and they knew Bernal carried the attorney’s business cards all the time in case someone needed a lawyer. They also knew Bernal admired Marcus so much that he named a son after him. “He always had the nicest things to say about Marcus,” says his widow, Maria, in Spanish. “That he was a great man who fought for Mexicans.” Bernal also discussed the case with her once, she says, just mentioning how stressful the experience was and nothing else.

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