Chicana/o studies was borne of the efforts of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) Student Strike at Berkeley in January-March, 1969, which resulted in the establishment of the first Ethnic Studies departments in the U.S. In my first year at community college, in 1995, I took my first Chicana/o history class and learned about historical events never spoken of before in my public school history courses. I started to learn the names of the people who refused to accept the injustices inflicted on our communities by racist laws policies and the people who wrote and enforced them.
I began to learn more about organizers like Cesar Chavez, Reises Lopez Tijerina and Bert Corona and the movements they were part of. And I immediately wanted to know more about the women whose stories were often eclipsed by the overinflated narratives about the men. It sent shivers down my spine to learn about Dolores Huerta, Emma Tenayuca, Luisa Moreno and Josefina Fierro de Bright.
It is in the spirit of the third world Liberation Front and my own ongoing education in Xicanx and Ethnic Studies that I create the type of artwork that I do. I am starting a new series of portrait of organizers, the movements and the history they made in hopes that they might help a new generation of people curious about these genealogies from which we emerge. This portrait is of Josefina Fierro de Bright. I have included a small symbol in the bottom right corner to symbolize the slogan “bread and rose” which appeals for both fair wages and dignified conditions.
“Born in the border town of Mexicali, Baja California during the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution, Josefina Fierro was raised in a familial heritage of revolutionary activism. Her father was an officer in General Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s northern revolutionary army, a fact that made him largely absent from her life. Raised by her mother, who separated from her husband and immigrated to the U.S. when Josefina was a baby, the language of revolution and social justice was a constant in her young life. Her mother’s family was followers of Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican anarchist banished from Mexico for promoting radical reforms as part of his Partido Liberal Mexicano, a movement he continued while in exile on the U.S. side of the border. As a “Magonista,” Josefina’s mother taught her daughter to stand up for the underdog, to speak out against injustice, and to treat others with dignity and respect. It was no surprise that Josefina would eventually use this background as a basis for assuming leadership within the Mexican American community in California as she came of age.
Josefina’s successful organizing efforts and her emergence as a key leader in the Los Angeles Mexican community attracted the attention of Latino leaders, especially Luisa Moreno, who were preparing to launch the first-ever national Latino civil rights organization, El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española (the Congress of Spanish-Speaking People) The Congress was founded in Los Angeles in 1939, and young Josefina was elected national secretary, the second highest ranking position in the organization. For the next several years, she and her colleagues led a broad-based civil rights movement for Mexican Americans and other Latinos in California and in the Southwest. A fiery orator who could captivate an audience, Josefina traveled throughout California to participate in various demonstrations and activities aimed at bringing down the walls of discrimination against Mexicans in housing, employment, education, and other public places.
She played an instrumental role, in addition, on the defense committee of the infamous “Sleepy Lagoon Case” in war-time Los Angeles (a murder trial involving several Mexican American youth accused and sentenced to prison for a crime they did not commit). The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee eventually won the release of the defendants from state prison two years after the original convictions. A year later, in June 1943, Josefina almost single-handedly brought an end to the days of rage and physical assault on Mexican Americans in downtown and in East Los Angeles during the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots.” With the L.A.P.D. unwilling to stop the brutality in the streets against Mexican American youth, Josefina flew to Washington, D.C. with a Mexican consulate official to prevail upon the Vice-President of the United States, Henry Wallace, to help bring an end to the violence unleashed against her community. Convinced by her graphic, first-hand stories about the beatings of Mexican Americans by servicemen, buttressed by an armful of newspapers she carried with sensational headlines about the riots, Wallace secured a military order that restricted all service personnel to their respective bases until order was restored.
As Josefina’s efforts to advocate for Mexican Americans attracted more notice, she was labeled as a “communist subversive” by the California Committee on UnAmerican Activities. After her divorce from John Bright, she returned to Madera where she organized on behalf of Henry Wallace’s Independent Progressive party. By 1948, after being hounded by the FBI and fearing arrest and deportation, she decided to leave the United States and head to Hermosillo, the Mexican port city where she lived the rest of her life.”- from the Online Archive of California See it here https://bit.ly/1zveKcI
To learn more about the life and organizing of Josefina Fierro de Bright I recommend the following books as resources.
- From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America by Vicki Ruiz
- The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History by Dolores Hayden
- Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 by George J. Sánchez
- The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory by Catherine S. Ramírez