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Tony: Leader with Magic Hands and a Heart of Gold

Updated: May 24, 2021

If We Fight, We Win! -Antonio Bernabé-

Tony was and is… a great leader

Tony was an authentic and tireless fighter and defender of the disposessed, who had a profound love for poor people and immigrants. As an immigrant, day laborer and father, he understood and represented the fight for immigrant rights. Originally from Celaya, Guanajuato, México, he was born into an entrepreneurial family on June 4, 1960. His family had a small store selling convenience items, grains and other agricultural products.

From the beginning of the 80’s, Mexicans were negatively impacted by the government-caused neoliberal economic crisis. In 1990 his family had severe economic problems and risked losing their house in Celaya. By that time, he had already married and had two small children. So despite its uncertainty, he made the painful decision to migrate to the North to save his family and his house. With the unwavering support of his wife, Martha, he took off from the north to go farther north. That is how Tony joined thousands of migrants and moved to Los Ángeles, California.

Tony used to say, “It was so hard for me to leave my family, but don’t worry, my friends, I came here when I was 30 years-old to start all over again. It’s a big challenge and it changes your life forever. But that’s how we immigrants are; we’re fighters and we don’t give up.” He came by land, as did so many migrants and he crossed the border with some difficulty and a lot of hope of building a better future for himself and his family. From the beginning he settled in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles County, which ended up becoming his permanent home. A year and a half after enduring the temporary separation from his family, his family reunited with him. His wife sold the little that they had left in Mexico and in that way was able to buy the plane tickets and make the permanent move to Los Angeles.

Tony, since the moment he arrived, worked hard and decisively integrated into the migrant work force. He was a jack-of-all-trades with magic hands, but with a lot of common sense, understanding and determination. With a heart of gold that allowed him to almost always be smiling and happy, but not stand for abuses and abusers. His love of the people was so deep that he couldn’t stand any lack of respect toward working people, toward immigrants, no matter how “small” it seemed. He would say,

It’s not right. You shouldn’t disrespect people, and it’s even worse when it is us who say that we are leaders. We owe a debt to the workers, to immigrants; the least we can do is treat them with respect. We are privileged as people with education and we shouldn’t forget that if we get recognized it is because of poor people. But some people get a good job or a title and they feel superior and mistreat people. This makes me angry and I will not let it happen.”

Tony always told us that in this country he became a day laborer because he needed to support his family. As a day laborer he did all types of jobs, from the easiest to the most difficult. He was very skilled in construction and had a lot of common sense. His ability to listen, his receptivity and observation were unique and he learned very quickly. He lived and suffered daily discrimination, harrassment, wage theft and the dificult life of temporary day labor, on the street exposed to everything.

In the same way, he earned the pleasure and sincerity of good bosses that there are in this world, the ones that he sold his labor to with excellent service and quality. He always advised his fellow day laborers, “When you get a job, do things well, behave well, be clean, neat and responsible. That way you will never lack employers who will hire you.” All of this gave him a unique understanding of working men and women. He was an educator and organizer with innate leadership abilities. There wasn’t a problem or conflict that he couldn’t mediate or solve, always smiling and measured, there was never trouble that he didn’t resolve. He believed in and practiced dialogue.

When he joined the CHIRLA family in 1997 as an organizer with the day laborer program, he was able to integrate smoothly into and develop as part of the dynamic leadership team and CHIRLA organizers, like Pablo Alvarado, Mario López, Víctor Narro and Angélica Salas. In this stage Tony stayed focused and listened to the new ideas and changes that needed to be done and he faced the challenge of changing over from the old traditional and impositional style of administering a work center, to one that was more democratic and participatory.

He made the Day Laborer Center of North Hollywood into a model center in the country. In time, he was a supervisor, then he organized on the streets and in countless public places. Eventually, he became the Director of Organizing at CHIRLA, now one of the biggest immigrant organizations in California and the country. Tony, with his indominable steely resolve, contributed much to this organizational development. He was a constant presence in protests and local, regional, state and national legislative visits, seeking reform that would allow immigrants to come out of the shadows. He deeply believed in the leadeship and power of immigrants in their fight for justice.

In CHIRLA, besides raising the quality of organizing in the worker centers, he also helped push forward, for more than two long years, the first attempt at creating the Los Angeles County Day Laborer Union. This day laborer organization counted on a solid team of 10 or more leaders that, along with Tony, never missed work meetings, educational workshops, surveys and actions defending labor and immigrant rights. This leadership group created the basis for what is now the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), a unique organization that defends and fights for the rights of men and women day laborers, workers and immigrants, that was founded in Northridge California el 2001. For many years Tony was a member of the Board of Directors of NDLON.

In all these years Tony was involved in popular education.

Between 1997 and 1998 Tony became familiar with Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, which made him a better organizer. He joined all of the leadership efforts to develop the worker centers and in this way Tony got to know Popular Education and Popular Theater. For him, this methodology enabled him to promote the power of the people and their participation in the fight of those at the bottom, of “poor people like me,” he would say. That motivated him and led him to participate in the study circles and leadership formation with day laborers so that they would study and develop themselves in these trainings during 2 years every Thursday without fail.

The result was that Tony learned to prepare and facilitate leadership workshops using popular communication. His leadership was key in creating mural newspapers, worker assemblies and center and CHIRLA member assemblies. Tony had his personal collection of books on his bookshelf at work with books from Latin American organizations focused on popular education such as Alforja, IMDEC and Equipo Maíz. He was very organized and he had almost all of the popular education files since 1997, which he showed me 20 years later. In his files with summaries, notes and supporting materials of countless leadership and political formation workshops that he attended and facilitated throughout the years.

He also loved sports: soccer, biking, baseball and running. He would always volunteer to help form soccer teams and tournaments and put together running teams that ran for years in the big international marathons in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. Always with the slogan “legalización para todas y todos/ legalization for all”

By 2017 there were already many CHIRLA members organized in base committees in all of Southern and Central California. Under Tony’s leadership, the organizing team was always innovating in order to maintain the interest and high spirits of the immigrants, of the CHIRLA members. They would take firm steps forward to advance the leadership development program that they were recreating and developing with popular education. For that reason, in February 2018, they rebooted the popular theater project, also known as Theater of the Oppressed, so that the commitees would readopt this method and in this way improve their ability to organize immigrants in their neighborhood and all over the country.

Tony would say, “Our people also like art, poetry, music and dance. I’m sure that with popular education they will relax, entertain, and learn about their rights, and since theater and popular education will get them involved, they will feel good and will understand the strength and power that they have as a fighting community, and theater will help as an organizing tool.”

That was Tony, a human being without equal, with a brilliant mind, a big heart of gold and magic hands that built, sustained, supported and gave warmth and unconditional love to the common people, to his people, to the poor.

Tony and his legacy in the struggle

At the moment of his sudden and unexpected death of COVID-19 on January 20, 2021, Tony left behind a supportive wife with an indominable spirit, loving children and a grandson, hundreds of immigrants that he guided, supported and personally inspired, and an immigrant rights organization that, due to its contributions over decades, was ready to promote and finally win fair immigration laws for which he had fought so hard all of his life.

Countless times he would say, “Poor people like me, immigrants, are under attack all the time. Their enemies don’t rest. So why should we rest? There is no time. People are suffering, being separated from their families. There’s no work, and the least we can do is to work hard, be the first to arrive and the last to leave. I’ll rest when I die. But as long as God gives me strength and I have breath, I will continue to fight.”

Tony a giant defender of immigrant rights

Antonio Bernabé luchó fought for immigrant rights for more than two decades as part of CHIRLA. As an immigrant, day laborer and father, he understood and represented the immigrant rights struggle. Countless leaders of all the groups that worked with Tony, we will follow his example, which is the best way to honor his legacy and his achievements, achievements which are difficult to condense in these few lines. He was present, assertive and active in all of the fights that I remember, fights against racist and discriminatory practices and laws.

Tony became one of the best organizers in California and perhaps in the whole country. He elevated organic processes to another level of inclusion and motivated the leadership of immigrants, starting with himself and his team, where the protagonists were the regular immigrant people of his organization’s committees. Processes with high levels of responsibility and mutual respect collectively conducted with unwavering dedication, honesty, trial by fire and lifelong commitment.

When we fight, we win! -Antonio Bernabé-

Popular epilogue

Tony and I met in a inter-corner day laborer workshop when I visited the North Hollywood Center in 1997. He has been like a brother to me and I will always keep him in my heart. I will apply his teachings and his incredible love for his family and community has always inspired me. In difficult moments in life Tony helped me reconnect with popular education, communication and theater, in the era when hatred once again obscured the horizon. He used to say that social change was not going to be easy to achieve, that you had to struggle for it. By reorienting us on the path to building popular power, where he thought that the role of popular education and theater of the oppressed as organizing tools was important and effective in the real inclusion of people at the bottom. In his honor I join many people that have committed ourselves to fight until the end for the most dispossessed and forgotten on this earth.


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