- A Latino Leftist and the United States in the Twentieth Century
In Memories of Chicano History: The Life Narrative of Bert Corona, Mario T. García presents the life testimonio of a twentieth-century Latino labor organizer and activist. 1 Like Nell Irvin Painter’s The Narrative of Hosea Hudson and Dorothy Healy Remembered, Maurice Isserman’s jointly authored book with Dorothy Healy, Memories of Chicano History is a collaborative effort, linking the concerns, questions, and perspective of academic history to the first-person narrative of a rank and file organizer. 2 The main body of the book consists of Corona’s life history in his own words, while the introduction and afterword by García focus on the importance of testimonios as oppositional history, on connections between race and class, and on ethnicity and ideology.
Born in El Paso, Texas in 1918, Corona has participated in a wide array of organizations and movements struggling against social inequality, some focused on the struggles of the entire working class, others on the specific grievances of Mexican Americans. As a college student in the late 1930s, he joined what would later become the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union and also became active in the Mexican American Movement, a pro-education organization composed mostly of Latino college students. Corona served as a trade union organizer for the Congress [End Page 215] of Industrial Organizations, and he also played important roles in El Congreso Nacional del Pueblo de Habla Espar fo (The National Congress of Spanish-Speaking People), the Independent Progressive Party, the Community Service Organization, and the Asociacitional Congress of Spanish-S (the Mexican American National Association). In the 1950s he was a key figure in the Mexican American Political Association, and Corona later volunteered his services to the Presidential election campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy. Since 1968, Corona has concentrated his efforts in southern California on La Hermanidad Mexicana Nacional (the Mexican National Brotherhood), a labor and community organization for Latino and Latina immigrant workers.
As an overtly subjective engagement with the past, Memories of Chicano History has all the strengths and weaknesses of any first-person account. It captures the immediacy of events and the subjective motivations of participants, but does not attempt to connect its accounts and descriptions with authoritative archival manuscript sources. In addition, García, as the formal historian in this testimonial, has a great amount of influence in the production of this text. Through the questions he asked, García shaped the outcome of Corona’s printed memories. The relationship between the formal scholar and the subject is the crucial difference between an autobiography and a testimonial, as the latter is produced by both, making it a work that derives from the ideological and intellectual understandings of the two individuals. Nonetheless, this rich testimonio offers important insights and raises generative questions about the politics of ethnicity, the representation of Latino/Latina identities, and the relationship between scholars and community activists.
As a migrant from El Paso to Los Angeles who has taken up the cause of migrants from Mexico and Central America as his own, Corona provides important insights into the ways in which ethnic identities become inflected by the particularities of place. He relates his surprise at an incident in 1936 on a Los Angeles streetcar when two Latinos ignored his question in Spanish about the location of a particular street in a white neighborhood. When the three got off the streetcar, the other two informed him (in Spanish) that, “It’s better if they [white Euro-Americans] don’t know you’re Mexican. They treat you better” (73). For Corona, the incident’s significance lay in the differences between El Paso and Los Angeles; he had never known ethnic Mexicans in his native city to deny their heritage in the way that these two persons in Los Angeles did. Some may wonder if racialized as well as regional diversity of Latinos encourages [End Page 216] some to try...