Yesterday, I spoke at the Brea Rotary Club, and a gentleman asked me who I thought was the most influential Mexican in OC history. Without hesitation, I replied "Alex Bernal," the Fullerton resident whose successful defense in 1943 against his racist gabacho neighbors who said their neighborhood was whites-only not only set a precedent in American housing rights, but also set the course for multiple anti-segregation lawsuits.
Bernal was on my mind that day, and not necessarily for good reasons. This past Monday, his daughter Irene passed away from cancer. She was 78.
As I reported in my 2010 cover story on Alex Bernal's case, it was Irene and her siblings that kept the flame of their father's legacy alive long after historians forgot about the Bernal case even though it made national headlines during the 1940s. Irene and her sister Maria Therese had been little girls when the lawsuit happened, and their family photo had appeared in the pages of Time as emblematic of the all-American family fighting the good fight. But Alex never talked about the case after its conclusion, and definitely not to the rest of his children.
"It was a very traumatic experience for Dad," Irene said back in 2010. "He never talked about it to anyone."
When Bernal passed away in 1999, it was Irene who gave her younger siblings an album that Alex had made of the lawsuit, that had sat untouched for decades. In the years since, she and other Bernal children sat on panels telling their dad's story, something that gave her comfort in her final years.
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"I always wanted people to know about my dad's story," Irene said back in 2010, "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."
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bernal family.