Alex and Esther Bernal, a Mexican-American family, bought a home on East Ash and South Pomona in the Sunnyside Addition of Fullerton in 1943. However, their new neighbors, who were white, weren’t happy about it and filed a court injunction to remove them from their property based on the deed’s racially restrictive covenants barring Mexicans, or any other persons other than Caucasian, from owning, renting, leasing or occupying the property.
The Bernals fought the injunction, defended themselves in court, and won because Mexican-Americans are technically Caucasians. It was the first court victory in the nation against racially restrictive covenants. It also moved the needle forward to impact equal access to education and employment for all people. This historic court case was reenacted on Saturday, August 26, 2023, at the Old OC Courthouse before Bernal family members, legal dignitaries, and elected officials.
The Reenactment of the Historical Trial – Doss V. Bernal, Orange County Courthouse, Case # 41466, was produced by Buendia Productions. The reenactment had all actors except for the Honorable Rich King, OC Superior Court, who played the Trial Judge, Albert F. Ross. The hosts were Vicente Sarmiento, OC Supervisor, Second District; the Hon. Thomas A. Delaney, Associate Justice, 4th Appellate District; and the Hon. Fredrick P. Aquirre (Ret.) They welcomed everyone and presented details about the case, its trial accounts, and the subsequent national impact.
Act One: Opening Statements
The reenactment began with the Bailiff calling all guests to stand for Judge Ross, who ordered the court in session. In his opening, Guss Hagenstein, the lawyer for the Sunnyside neighbors, made the following statements:
- Invalidate the purchase and remove the defendants from the property in accordance with the deed’s racially restrictive covenants restricting Mexicans or persons other than the Caucasian race from using, leasing, owning, or occupying the property.
- The defendants will irreparably damage and injure the plaintiffs through property devaluation.
The opening statements by David C. Marcus, the lawyer for Alex and Esther Bernal, stated that the injunction was:
- Violation of the 5th & 14th Amendments of the US Constitution and Article I., Sec. 13 of the California Constitution.
- Void & non-enforceable because defendants, by definition, are Caucasians.
- Violation of the Good Neighbor Policy.
Act Two: The Decision
The trial concluded after the merits of each side were heard and presented. Judge Ross presented his decision by declaring the following:
- It is not true the defendants are Mexicans or persons other than Caucasian.
- It is not true that occupying the property will lower the valuation of the property.
- It is not true that the defendants will irreparably damage or injure plaintiffs.
- The enforcement of restrictions against Mexicans is a violation of the 5th & 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article I., Sec. 13 of the California Constitution. “Therefore, I rule in favor of the defendants Alex and Esther Bernal,” said Judge Ross.
The court decision is significant today, but in 1943, the decision wasn’t heavily publicized, according to the post-enactment presentation by Hon. Fredrick Aquirre. Awareness and access slowly came. Although the case victory opened up housing access for Mexican Americans, non-access for African Americans or Asians persisted until the Supreme Court case Shelley V Kraemer, 1948.
Act Three: Impact on the Bernal Family
Maria Theresa “Teddy” Bernal Haught and Joe Bernal shared the impact that the trial had on their family. Maria Theresa informed me that her mother, Esther, died from cancer two years after the case. She stated, “The pesticide DDT probably triggered the cancer from picking fruit, but I also blame the stress from the trial.”
Theresa proudly revealed that her mother, Esther, not only found the house that was for sale but processed the escrow and sale at the bank along with the previous owners, Velda and Joseph Johnson, because her father, Alex, had to work. “What a woman!” she exclaimed.
Records from OC Superior Court case dispositions confirm Esther Bernal’s actions.
Theresa said, “My mother being light-skinned helped in the process.” Today, Theresa recognizes the Johnson family also for standing behind their sale despite some pressures.
Theresa lived in the home until 1959, when she married. She said that the experiences in the Sunnyside neighborhood between the children were good, saying, “My sister Irene and I played with the other kids, but my parents never talked, except to our neighbors, Calvin Sr. and Alice Blood, whom I call true friends of the family.” Furthermore, Theresa fell in love with a boy living a few houses away. She said, “I married my neighbor Elmo Haught, and my sister Irene married Elmo’s cousin, George Bryant.”
Joe Bernal likewise shared his memories. He was born after the historic Fullerton house was sold. Joe said, “Dad wanted a bigger house, so he sold it in the 1970s.” Joe also shared the close relationship between the attorney David C. Marcus and his father.
He said, “They were such good friends that my Dad named my brother David after him.” He also said, “Mr. Marcus visited the family many times, and Dad would go see some of his cases.”
Mr. David C. Marcus would later be involved in another historic case victory in 1947. On this occasion, he was representing Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez against the Westminster School District in the case Mendez v. Westminster. The district denied their children access to a nearby school, instead transferring them to a “Mexican-only school” further away.
It’s been 80 years since the Bernal case ended, and in retrospect, I conclude some things: The Bernal family suffered, yet they persevered to help others; the Johnson family never wavered from the sale; and Judge Ross based his decision on the law and our democratic principles and not on the prevailing societal influences or patterns.
The house has a significant place in Fullerton’s history as well as in our nation’s history, and it should be recognized as such with a historical designation.