Mi Casa Es Mi Casa

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

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.

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 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
Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
John Gilhooley
Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer
Kimberly Valenzuela
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer

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.”

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.

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.

*     *     *

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.”

The local press didn’t pay attention to Bernal’s victory; the Fullerton News-Tribune devoted just a 200-word story to the ruling. But the Bernal case received international attention. The Mexican consul, noting the Good Neighbor Policy between Mexico and the United States at the time, said the decision “proved that the politics of inter-American rapprochement isn’t an utopia, but a reality.” United Press put the story on its wire, and Time wrote a brief report complete with pictures of a suited Alex, his wife, and daughters Maria Theresa and Irene, everyone smiling—the all-American family that had “moved across the tracks to stay.” Time also dramatized the Bernal story in its nationally syndicated radio program, March of Time. And the case even received mention in American Me, a 1949 book that was one of the first positive portrayals of Mexicans in American publishing.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles-based African-American weekly, the California Eagle, splashed the Bernal decision across its front page, with headlines proclaiming, “California Judge Jolts Nation,” “Race Property Bars Held Illegal!” and “Race Housing Bars are Falling!” The Eagle, along with other African-American organizations, had long tried unsuccessfully to fight housing covenants in Los Angeles against blacks; the newspaper saw the Bernal victory as crucial to its cause, contrasting it to the “stolid silence of city and county officials concerning race restrictions on the city’s housing.”

“This decision,” the paper concluded, “may be an important instrument in helping to solve the serious wartime-housing situation in the Los Angeles area as it applies to Mexicans and especially to Negro people.”

But the case wasn’t finished. On Sept. 20, Hagenstein filed a motion taking exception to Ross’ ruling. He argued that the 14th Amendment didn’t apply to the Bernals, as they were Mexicans, and mentioned again that Mexicans would bring down housing prices. Two weeks later, he filed another motion, now seeking to vacate Ross’ decision; Hagenstein cited case precedents in arguing for the legality of housing covenants.

The judge was not swayed. In his final ruling on Nov. 15, Ross wrote that he felt that if he enforced housing covenants, a higher court would eventually find them unconstitutional. His bigger concern, however, was that it was against the philosophy “of the United States and of the state of California to enforce a restriction on occupancy based solely on nationality of the persons against whom the restrictions are sought. This is especially true when the nationality affected is that of a friendly neighbor and when one particular nationality is named.”

*     *     *

In April 1967, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Loren Miller sat down for an interview with Lawrence de Graaf that is now part of the collection at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History. Miller would pass away a couple of months later, but he was already a legendary figure in the civil-rights movement for attacking the very sort of housing covenants that Bernal and Marcus had defeated 25 years earlier. It was Miller who, along with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in 1948 successfully argued Shelley v. Kraemer before the nation’s highest court, a decision that ended housing covenants nationwide. It was Miller who brought national attention to the issue in 1945 with what’s commonly called the Sugar Hill case; like Doss v. Bernal, it involved white neighbors suing to remove African-Americans from their neighborhood, in this instance African-American movie stars such as Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters who lived in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. And it was Miller who had argued the successful California Supreme Court appeal of Fairchild v. Raines, a 1944 case involving a Pasadena African-American family that historians usually cite as the first legal finding against housing covenants.

Miller was also a historian of civil-rights lawsuits—his 1966 book, The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro, is a beautifully written chronology of the African-American legal experience. The judge knew the importance of the cases he had tried as a lawyer. But ever the humble judicial officer, he told de Graaf that it was the judge in the Sugar Hill case, Thurmond Clarke, who deserved the most credit for ending housing covenants, as he claimed that the decision was the first time someone had successfully cited the 14th Amendment in fighting segregation in the courts. “Unfortunately for him and for his place in history,” said Miller, the case didn’t go further than Los Angeles Superior Court. “[Clarke is] entitled to a great deal of credit for his courage and his foresight in looking ahead and correctly gauging the trend of constitutional decisions.”

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.

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.”

*     *     *

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.

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.”

“All Dad wanted was a nice house for his wife and two kids,” says Maria Theresa. “He didn’t cry for a handout; he didn’t like to brag. He just did what he had to do.”

garellano@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "Mi Casa Es Mi Casa: How Fullerton produce-truck driver Alex Bernal helped change the course of American civil rights."

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