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The $500 Burrito

I suppose everyone has experienced moments of self disgust and responsibilities for self accusations as in "How in the hell could you be so stupid?" I have experienced a few moments like this, but none so vivid and memorable as the $500 Burrito.

The cause and occurrence of this Mexican delicacy was the “velorio” or memorial service at California State University, Los Angeles, for longtime Chicano labor and social activist, Bert Corona, known also as "E; Valiante Chicano." We were friends since I had met him as a young priest at St. Mary's Church, West Oakland, California in the 1950s. At that time I had been involved in the organizing and the development of a Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) chapter in the East Bay. Bert was one of the founders and led MAPA’s Northern California operations, serving as the organization's president from 1961-1971. If one "googles" Bert Corona, the surfer will witness a life of his activism toward Mexican communities from his years as a high school student until his death on January 15, 2001 at the age of 82.

An interesting autobiographical note about the source of this activism was his acknowledgment of his Protestant religious development in infusing a deep sense of social justice. This influence originated from his religious mother and grandmother. Wikipedia describes him as: "Humberto Noe ‘Bert’ Corona (May 29, 1918-January 15, 2001) was an American labor and civil rights leader. Throughout his long career he worked with nearly every major Mexican American organization, founding or cofounding several. They organized workers for the Congress of Industrial Organizations and fought on behalf of immigrants. By the time of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he was known as El Viejo (“The Old Man”) and was well-known and respected as a veteran activist."

I would meet him at various MAPA functions along with other activists like Herman Gallegos, Jimmy Delgadillo, Evelio Grillo and others. Bert was also very active during the John F. Kennedy campaign. His enthusiasm and fiery statements about the injustices against Mexican nationals or immigrants bordered on a preacher is denunciations, convincing one to get baptized for the cause.

The other feature I remember about him was his encyclopedic knowledge of epics in Mexican history. In later years I invited him to speak at a Mexican American Youth Association’s student congress at Sonoma State University. Maya was an organization of Sonoma County Mexican high school students which I and Candido Morales had organized.

At the time of Bert’s death I was working as a counselor at the Anderson Valley high school. My daughter Rebecca had graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in education and Chicano studies. I guess she inherited my Chicano activism as she later on in her first year as a teacher proudly displayed a United Farm Workers flag in her classroom. Among many of the Mexican male students who I had counseled was a young man named Oscar Malfavon who at that time had a passion about juvenile justice. My fantasy had him in law school and crusading in later years for a revolution in juvenile justice.

I saw Bert’s velorio as a wonderful opportunity to introduce Rebecca and Oscar to all of the pioneer Chicano activists who would certainly attend the ceremony. So I immediately reserved three round-trip airfares to Los Angeles where we landed, rented a car and drove out to the college. We had a small problem with the Los Angeles freeways but finally arrived at the venue. We walked into the auditorium which was empty to find two ladies cleaning up a meeting. One Mexican looking woman looked at me quizzically saying, "Can I help you?"

I answered, "We were here for the memorial service for Bert Corona."

Her friendly face took on an air of sadness as she replied, "Oh! I'm so sorry. It concluded about an hour ago."

I couldn't believe it! Was I in the right place? Did I have the correct date? All that was true — except the time. No wonder the parking lot was empty. No wonder there were no mourners standing around. The lady was particularly sorry when we told her we were from Northern California.

Rebecca had friends in East Los Angeles. As it was about lunchtime we drove over to a Mexican market (blank) for lunch, the site of the most expensive burrito I have ever eaten. As I remember we met some of her friends and enjoyed the afternoon until retreating back to the Los Angeles airport for our flight home.

So if any of you reading this are looking for a nice day in Los Angeles with delicious Mexican food I can give you directions. Oscar is now known as "Omar" and is involved in local environmental causes. When we both want to share a laugh, we remember the $500 Burrito.

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