By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
In his later years, family friends would find Bernal walking the streets of his old neighborhood, asking anyone who would listen that he needed to go home—to the house on Ash Avenue. He eventually succumbed to pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease at age 84 on Jan. 3, 1999.
A couple of days later, the Fullerton Observer called his family.
* * *
“We care about fair housing and all things that have to do with diversity,” says Sharon Kennedy, editor of the twice-monthly Observer. She speaks from experience: As a small girl, she remembers accompanying her parents during the early 1950s as they gathered signatures in support of a Chinese family who had moved into their Fullerton neighborhood and were experiencing racism. Her brother Rusty Kennedy heads the Orange County Human Relations Commission. And their parents were among the founders of the Orange County Fair Housing Council, which helped African-Americans battle housing discrimination in the county during the mid-1960s; one of the couples the organization helped was Lincoln and Dorothy Mulkey, who were denied an apartment in Santa Ana because they were black. Their lawsuit, Mulkey v. Reitman, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, where a majority ruled housing discrimination against renters was illegal, the last significant victory in a battle that began with the Bernals.
Kennedy hadn’t heard about Bernal until a writer—she can’t remember who—pitched an obituary on him. “This man was so courageous,” she says. “To forget about him was terrible.” She liked the article, but the editor in her asked the reporter to follow up with the Bernal children for comment.
Joseph still remembers that day. “It was surreal,” says the skinny 27-year-old who sports a buzz Mohawk. “I didn’t know anything that the reporter was talking about. Eventually, all I could do was a short essay expressing my love for Dad.”
The Observer printed Joseph’s essay and the obituary in January 1999. “We can thank the Bernals for standing up for their rights to live where they wished and for bringing awareness of [housing covenants] to the surface” years before anyone else, the Observer reported. “The Bernals and their lawyers and friends showed the way.”
After the Bernals buried their patriarch at Loma Vista Cemetery in Fullerton, they sat down to read his files. They found newspaper dispatches, court documents, depositions and letters—dozens of them, all congratulatory, from all over the United States—but none from Orange County. Housewives, professors, ministers and teenagers wrote to Alex via typewriters, pen and telegram.
Most of the letters came from military personnel—top brass and grunts, troops going through basic training, and those already overseas fighting World War II. “Congratulations on your courage and sticking to the principles for which most of our Army is striving,” wrote one lieutenant.
“Congratulations to you in properly contesting and defending your rights as an American,” wrote someone else.
“I am so disgusted with this attitude of my countrymen toward prospective citizens or even citizens of alien parentage.”
“If enough cases such as yours are brought to light for all America to ponder, racial prejudice in time may reach the vanishing point.”
“Please be sure that unthinking prejudice does not prevail anywhere. Ambition and personal worth must always have a place in America, or our country will decay.”
Reading through the scanned album, “I was proud and sad,” says Joseph. “As I read some of it, I started to understand why [Dad] said the things he said.”
“It makes me angry to read that stuff,” adds his sister Angelica, holding her two young daughters while reclining on a couch at Irene’s home. “You’re amazed that people would stoop so low.”
“I was surprised that segregation even went on,” Patricia says. “It was never talked about.”
“Pride and anger, yeah,” says Alex Bernal Jr., a stocky security guard who works at Cypress College. “But most important, I’m proud that the truth wins out, like Dad would say.”
The family is still learning about Bernal’s past. On a recent Sunday afternoon, in Irene’s beautiful Anaheim tract home, Joseph showed his nephew an original copy of the Time article that featured Alex and his beaming family for the first time. “Wow,” the nephew responded, before sitting with it to read the issue.
Over the years, the Bernals told friends about their dad’s case, but that was it. Once, Joseph says, he wrote to actor Edward James Olmos to ask if he was interested in turning his father’s story into a movie; Olmos replied that Joseph should enroll in college classes and do it himself. Currently, Joseph is writing a screenplay about his father’s life.
“I always wanted people to know about my dad’s story,” says Irene, “But we didn’t know how to get about it, or if anyone would listen. But it’s important. People should know why we now have the rights we do. They didn’t appear out of nowhere; they happened because people fought for them and did the right thing.”