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Guided by a Vision : How Bert Corona met the challenges of Latino leadership : MEMORIES OF CHICANO HISTORY: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona, By Mario T. Garcia (University of California Press: $30; 360 pp.)

October 09, 1994|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, the Spanish language weekly published by the Los Angeles Times

Very early in his life, Bert Corona made a commitment that he would honor for more than six decades: to devote all his energy into organizing the Mexican-American community into labor unions.

This memoir, narrated to historian Mario Garcia, recounts the story of Corona's activism in the Mexican communities of California. Although it describes some of the movement's accomplishments and failures, it is ultimately Corona's history: a consciously self-centered account of his accomplishments and failures.

In his struggle for unionism, Corona was guided by a resolutely socialist vision. Identifying himself as an ordinary working-class Mexican, he began organizing his community with the conviction that class struggle is the motor of history and that the Mexican people will only be truly liberated when they understand the need to change the relationship of social forces. The "real forces" writes Corona, "are General Motors and the other big corporations. . . . The enemy (is) the corporate power. . . ."

Even today, in his work as national director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Latino immigrant rights group, Corona's socialist conviction remains in place. Corona, of course, did not lead a great Mexican revolution in the United States, nor was he able to change the path of history and turn the means of production over to the workers. He was, however, able to find his own niche in the history of the Chicano labor movement by defending the rights of undocumented workers at a time when nobody else, including great labor leaders like Cesar Chavez, would represent them.

Corona is actually very generous and respectful toward Chavez even as he details his disagreement with the Mexican icon. "I did have an important difference with Cesar" Corona writes. "This involved his, and the Union's position on the need to apprehend and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were being used as scabs by the growers. . . . The Hermandad believed that organizing undocumented farm workers was auxiliary to the union's efforts to organize the fields. We supported an open immigration policy, as far as Mexico was concerned."

Corona turned out to be right and Chavez wrong. The farm workers' union ran into a cul de sac precisely because its leaders failed to understand how to turn the tide. Instead of converting the undocumented to his union, Chavez and those close to him denounced them as scabs and fought them with a vengeance. He would pay the price for this myopia with an increasingly debilitated union membership.

But if Chavez was wrong and Corona was right on this one, that was not always the case. Chavez and Corona lived parallel lives that seldom crossed the same paths because their approach toward the community was substantially different.

Corona believed in the so-called "progressive" strategy to reach the community from a liberal, anticlerical position. Chavez knew that Mexicans are basically conservative, Catholic and nationalistic and drew his strategy along these lines. "The farm workers' struggle in the sixties," Corona wrote, "had a dual character, which Cesar artfully shaped. It was a labor battle, but it also had the dimensions of a mass community involvement . . . (Cesar) employed all the trappings of a Mexicano national involvement: the symbols of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Mexican flag, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, the songs, the colors, the eagle--all that became a movement." Chavez grew to become the Mexican national figure. Corona remained a regional leader.

Corona came to California from his native El Paso in the decade of the 1930s. In Los Angeles, he became acquainted with the Communist Party and although he denies ever joining it, he does praise its "unwavering dedication to ameliorating the terrible conditions under which poor people such as Mexicans were forced to live."

Corona defines himself as a socialist, influenced more by Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Jack London than by Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. Reading his testimonial, it becomes clear that his ideology is based more on the practice of hard core unionizing than on rigorous readings of Marx.

His career as a union organizer begins almost simultaneously in three organizations: the Longshoremen's Union, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Mexican American Movement. The first provides him with the practical training for organizing, the second gives him an ideological framework, while the third puts him directly in touch with America's Spanish-speaking communities.

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