Joe Bernal was a pioneer in securing educational rights and opportunities for Latinos. All San Antonians can be proud of his many contributions.
Joe Bernal was baptized Jose Maria Bernal and is known to the Westside community of San Antonio as Dr. Bernal or Senator Bernal. He is often called “Chema” to close family members and friends. Bernal was raised near J.T. Brackenridge Elementary School at the corner of Brazos and Guadalupe Street. As a young student, he was often punished for speaking Spanish in school. Growing up during the Great Depression years his family had little money, and young Joe Bernal often was sent home from school for not wearing shoes.
As a young boy Bernal remembers selling candy to customers entering the San Antonio Spanish movie theater Progreso in the mid 1930s. Bernal loved watching movies at the Progreso and would stand near the entrance on Tuesdays and Thursdays when “dos por uno,” two for one promotions, were in effect. He got in free by convincing someone attending the movie alone to include him.
On weekends the Progreso offered popular Hollywood movies such as Tarzan and Flash Gordon. Bernal called the corner of Brazos and Guadalupe the “center of my universe.” His father’s cousin operated the Progreso Drug Store, and his family frequented the Mexican restaurant next door owned by Santos Villarreal.
Dr. Bernal is a favorite among the Lanier alum. Bernal played on the 1944 Lanier basketball team that went to the state finals and lost by one point. Following graduation, Bernal joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Pacific Air Command. After the end of the war, he returned to San Antonio and attended Trinity University on the G.I. Bill.
Bernal taught school at David Crockett Elementary School for ten years and worked weekends and summer months with the Guadalupe Church pre-school and after school programs. He also had a long association with the Inman Christian Center across from the Alazan-Apache Courts Public Housing Project. I attended the Guadalupe Church programs and considered Bernal one of my major role models.
Dr. Bernal won his first state office as a member of the Texas House of Representatives in 1964. As a House member he managed to pass the first Texas law friendly to immigrants. The bill allowed citizens who had lived in the United States more than 25 years to receive benefits regardless of citizenship status. Many of San Antonio’s Mexican American seniors had arrived in the United States during the time of an open U.S. Mexico border. Texas farmers and ranchers welcomed the immigrants whom they considered cheap labor.
The pre-1930 immigrants lived in isolated rural agricultural communities, but also in barrio enclaves in cities like San Antonio. As in the case of my four grandparents, Mexican immigrants who came to the United States before 1915 often came with no formal schooling and were never required to become citizens.
Bernal is best remembered as one of the “fathers” of public higher education in San Antonio and a champion for better opportunities for Latinos. Bernal was an early Latino leader who devoted his political career to helping others. A great leader can be measured by what he or she did to improve society–to enhance progress in the world. The following are a few examples of Dr. Bernal’s contribution to a better Texas
during his Senate tenure.
When Joe Bernal served in the Texas Senate in the late 1960s he made history by introducing bills supporting bilingual education, minimum wages for workers, and kindergarten programs for state children. He also was instrumental in abolishing a law forbidding the use of languages other than English in Texas classrooms. As a State Senator, Bernal Introduced legislation in 1969 that secured passage of the state’s first bilingual education act. Texas received federal funding for bilingual education. Bernal also introduced legislation to abolish state law prohibiting the use of any other language but English.
Also in 1969, Bernal Introduced a Senate bill to establish a University of Texas campus in San Antonio. UTSA opened its doors to graduate students in 1972 and enrolled its first undergraduate students in 1974. In addition, Bernal’s higher education bills supported a new UT Health Science Dental and Nursing Program. After leaving the Senate in the early 1970s, Bernal worked as an Assistant Superintendent with the Harlandale School District. In 1996 Bernal won a seat on the State Board of Education and was re-elected 2000. In that capacity he helped oversee the selection of textbooks and supported programs that benefited Latino youth.
Bernal fought many political battles in the Senate and he remembers to this day the hard legislative battle when he helped pass the state’s first minimum wage law. San Antonio is a better city because of his vision and commitment to improving educational opportunity, economic stability, and health care.
Three weeks ago his wife of 64 years, Mary Esther, and thirty members of his family joined Dr. Bernal for his 92nd birthday. Nearly 100 Lanier High School Alum attended this special event. All agreed that Joe Bernal had been an exceptional public servant who had served his community well. After singing Las Mananitas to him, his friends and family wished him many more years of good life.
Copyright 2020 by Ricardo Romo. Photo credits Felix Yregias and Patrick Bernal, photos posted on Latinopia with their permission.