March 2, 1998: Josefina Fierro de Bright, born in Mexicali (1920), passed away
Quick. Name a Chicana labor organizer.
How about Josefina Fierro de Bright?
Unfamiliar? Check out this short biography from Chicanas.com (a great website on some badass mujeres):
Josefina Fierro de Bright was born in Mexico in 1920. She grew up in farm labor camps as the daughter of a bordera who served meals to migrant workers in Madera, California. Josefina gave up her studies at UCLA to become an organizer, and her style was described by veteran longshoremen’s leader Bert Corona as gutsy, flamboyant, and tough. As executive secretary of El Congreso (the first national Latino civil rights org) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, she organized protests against racism in the LA Schools, against the exclusion of Mexican-American youths from public swimming pools, and against police brutality. In 1942, she was a key figure in organizing the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, to support the seventeen Chicano youths held without bail on little evidence for the alleged killing of one youth. With Luisa Moreno, she helped to coordinate El Congreso’s support for Spanish-speaking workers in the furniture, shoe manufacturing, electrical, garment, and longshoremen’s unions.
— from Dolores Hayden, “Reinterpreting Latina History at the Embassy Auditorium” in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History.
In an article on El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española (the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples) Carlos Larralde expands on Fierro de Bright’s involvement with El Congreso:
Another important activist, Josefina Fierro de Bright, managed the day-to-day operations of the Southern California chapters of El Congreso while, at the same time, attracting writers and movie stars to the cause. Her husband, John Bright, was a Hollywood screenwriter and a founding member of the Screen Writers Guild. Together, they entertained luminaries such as John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellmann, Theodore Dreiser, Orson Welles, Robert Lowell and others. In addition, Fierro de Bright played a major role in curtailing the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, pleading with the Los Angeles Times to curtail sensational journalism. She corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt and helped the administration smooth diplomatic relations with Mexico.
– Larralde, C. M. (2004). El Congreso in San Diego: An endeavor for civil rights. The Journal of San Diego History, 50(1 & 2). [PDF]
If you want to read more about Chicano civil rights organizing pre 1950, check out Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 by George J. Sánchez. Chapter 11, “Forging a New Politics of Opposition” is specifically about el Congreso.