Bert Corona: Chicano Park Mural Recognizes the Father of the Immigration Movement

By David Avalos 
Special for La Prensa San Diego

‘Historical Mural’: Original 1973 artists who repainted the mural in 2012: Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda, Salvador Barajas (Lead Artist), Armando Nuñez, Victor Ochoa, and Guillermo Rosette. Assistance from Salvador Barajas, Jr., Rayban Urbina, and Hector Villegas.
‘Historical Mural’: Original 1973 artists who repainted the mural in 2012: Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda, Salvador Barajas (Lead Artist), Armando Nuñez, Victor Ochoa, and Guillermo Rosette. Assistance from Salvador Barajas, Jr., Rayban Urbina, and Hector Villegas.

This week the bipartisan group of Senators known as the “Gang of Eight” put their plan for “comprehensive immigration reform” before the USAmerican public, and once again served the Chicana/o community a Mexican Combo Platter steaming with piles of beefed-up border security smothered in drones, refried Bracero guest worker programs, and microwaved workplace enforcement.

Citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without legally adjusted status, (“amnesty” to conservatives) went sour when gang member Marco Rubio told Fox News “it will be cheaper, faster and easier for people to go back home and wait 10 years than it will be to go through this process that I’ve outlined.”

Herman Baca of the Committee on Chicano Rights (CCR) feels the Chicana/o community has no voice in the debate because it has forgotten the lessons of Bert Corona who introduced the foundational ideas and approaches to establishing immigrant labor rights in this country.

Baca remembers being astonished when in 1972 Corona told him that the Chicana/o community must address the issue of immigration because it would affect our people far into the future. Corona declared that, “No human being is illegal.” Baca listened and became the first Chicano activist in San Diego to incorporate immigrant rights into all his organizing efforts.

From the 1930s to his death in 2001, “Corona, while unknown to many in the US, struggled … to raise the issue of the undocumented worker to the forefront of US public policy discussion” Baca remembers. He considers Corona to be the father of the immigrant rights movement.

Bert Corona

Humberto Noé “Bert” Corona arrived on the border on May 29, 1918 born to Mexican immigrants in El Paso, Texas. His father had been a commander in Francisco Villa’s revolutionary army; his mother a schoolteacher. In 1937 he traveled to USC on a basketball scholarship and became active with the Mexican American Movement of Los Angeles-area college students. A union organizer, he was elected President of Los Angeles’ International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Local 26 in 1941.

He helped Josefina Fierro of the Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española in her initial stages of organizing the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. The Committee won freedom for twelve Los Angeles Chicanos vilified in the media as a Zoot Suit gang and wrongfully convicted of murder in 1942.

After service in US Army, Corona became active in the Asociación Nacional México-Americana whose primary goal was to unionize Mexican workers including Braceros. From 1942 to 1964 the federal government’s Bracero Program authorized Mexican nationals to perform farm labor as “guest workers” throughout the States. US Department of Labor official, Lee G. Williams, who oversaw the day-to-day operation of the Program, termed it, “nothing short of slavery … a way for big corporate farms to get a cheap labor supply from Mexico under government sponsorship.”

At the time of his death on January 15, 2001, Corona was Director of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a group originally founded by labor leader Felipe Usguiano to represent braceros in San Diego in 1951. Corona became director in 1976 and continued to the end to defend immigrants’ rights, organize unions, and provide social services.

Members of the CCR drove north to memorial services for Corona on January 20. Waiting to march with an unexpectedly small crowd to St. Vincent Catholic Church for the funeral service, Baca was shaken.

“I can’t believe there aren’t more people here for Bert,” he muttered. “Think of the tens of thousands of people he helped get immigration papers. Where are they all?” he wondered. Baca determined to do his part to keep his mentor’s memory alive.

In 1960 Corona and others founded the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) to increase the civic engagement of Mexican Americans by mobilizing political power through education and full participation in the political process.

At a MAPA statewide convention in 1971 Corona impressed Baca who recalls that “he was the first Mexican I saw bring politicians to the podium and demand accountability, asking them what they wanted from the organization and what they would do for the community in return.” Baca went on to establish a MAPA chapter in National City.

Bert-H-CtoLP4-16-13Baca began working closely with CASA-Justicia a National City social service agency modeled after Centro de Acción Social Autónomo-Hermandad General Trabajadores, (CASA-HGT) in Los Angeles. In 1968 Corona and Soledad “Chole” Alatorre had launched CASA-HGT as a self-help social service agency for Mexican workers and families seeking to regularize their immigration status. It provided legal services and politically oriented rights education as an organizing strategy. CASA-Justicia did the same while governed by a Board of immigrant workers.

In an analysis distributed at a University of California Riverside Immigration Reform Summit last month Baca writes that Bracero type guest worker proposals are proof that so-called immigration solutions are really designed to solve labor problems created by the U.S. economy’s “addiction for cheap, and exploitable labor.”

Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, earlier this month blessed as a “good thing” the agreement on guest worker proposals reached by the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce while admitting that:

… employers can claim a “labor shortage” — allowing in more guest workers, who will cause wages to drop back down again.

Reich reasoned that the AFL-CIO agreed to the charade knowing 11 million unauthorized workers are already here doing low-wage work and that, “The only way these undocumented workers can ever become organized – and not undercut attempts to unionize legal workers — is if the undocumented workers also become legal.”

Thirty years ago progressive thinkers like José “Pepe” Medina, formerly of CASA-HGT, helped craft a Bill of Rights for Undocumented Workers. The document radically reframes the immigration issue, insisting that a legal immigration status does not provide workers’ rights. It is the other way around. Article I declares that:

Every immigrant worker shall have the right to establish legal residency by demonstrating a status as wage earner and taxpayer.

There would be no need for “amnesty” because working would not be criminalized.

Nor would there be a need to go to the end of the line and wait thirteen years or more for citizenship and the right to vote. Article XIII declares that:

Every immigrant worker shall have the right to vote in local and state elections from the moment of legalizing their immigration status without having to become citizens. The right is based on their status as taxpayers, workers and residents.

Grounded on a belief in immigrants’ universal rights as workers and their ability to organize on their own behalf, creators of the Bill of Rights presented the immigration issue in terms of labor rights and civic participation, instead of business interests, criminalization and border security.

Baca who has supported the Bill of Rights since the 1980s recently republished its thirteen articles. He recognizes the influence of Corona’s thinking on the document, recalling how he often told him, “If you’re good enough to work, you’re good enough to vote.” Chewing over the current immigration debate, Baca bemoans the absence of a Chicana/o leadership capable of framing the historical issues involved, and scoffs at the presence of hired politicians and social service agency directors that are “parroting the defined solutions laid out by their Democrat and Republican Party bosses.”

Sal Barajas

In 1944, a year after his birth in Sinaloa, Mexico, Salvador “Sal” Barajas’ family moved to Tijuana. He attended elementary school in Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood so close to the borderline that you could enter the USA by crossing a street.

Eventually, Barajas crossed and joined the U.S. Air Force in search of opportunity. While in the service he lobbied for a transfer from his warehouse duties to train as a technical illustrator. Meanwhile at Chanute AF Base he become the base featherweight boxing champion, and a US citizen.

Upon discharge he attended Trade Tech in Los Angeles on the G.I. Bill before returning to the border region to live in San Diego. He found his way to the Centro Cultural de la Raza. In 1973 he would paint the first mural at Chicano Park with other Toltecas en Aztlán including Guillermo “Yermo” Aranda, Armando Nuñez, Guillermo Rosette and Victor Ochoa.

Forty years later Barajas and the others restored the badly deteriorated “Historical Mural.” Financed by a $1.6 million federal transportation enhancement grant to Caltrans and the Chicano Park Steering Committee (CPSC) Barajas, the Toltecas and dozens of other artists revitalized nearly twenty murals, finally able to afford proper scaffolding, and the best mural paints available.

The stunning results reintroduced all San Diego to a cultural treasure. In 2012 the restoration project received the City of San Diego’s Historic Preservation Award for Cultural Landscape. Later that year the San Diego Architectural Foundation presented its Grand Orchid Award to the CPSC for representing “a space and not a building, as the center of culture.” The State Historical Resources Commission recognized Chicano Park as a Historical Space.

In March 2013 the Second Annual Gracia Molina de Pick Feminist Lecture Series honored Tommie Camarillo, Chair of the CPSC, for her “Chicana activism.” Later that week, Mayor Bob Filner on behalf of the City of San Diego announced the “placement of Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Murals on the National Register of Historic Places.” The theme of tomorrow’s 43rd Chicano Park Day is “Aztlán’s Jewel & National Chicano Treasure.”

Chicano Park was birthed in 1970, at the height of Chicana/o activism, the result of a militant take-over of public land by a community that wanted a “park where all the families could come on a Sunday afternoon, and celebrate the spirit of life itself,” as Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, CPSC member, wrote in his Chicano Park Samba.

During the 2012 restoration, Sal Barajas added the portraits of Bert Corona and Herman Baca to the “Historical Mural” pantheon that includes Corky Gonzales, Chunky Sanchez and Dolores Huerta. Both portraits look out at a historic site cherished by the Chicana/o community and formally acknowledged by city, state and federal government agencies.

Barajas insists that “we must recognize each and every one of these personalities at every opportunity we have, so the new generations of Chicanas/os and Mexicanas/os do not forget where they came from and who paved the road for them.”

¡Que viva Chicano Park – Aztlán’s Jewel & National Chicano Treasure!

¡Bert Corona Presente!

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