Bernal's aesthetics stemmed from his Cuban birth and the experience of exile and renewal. His art has been described as modernist, abstract, and expressionist. The term postmodernist also may be applied to Bernal's diverse and complex body of work, specifically as he rejected the notion of the new in art, a characteristic imbued in postmodern theory.
In 1961, "... during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Bernal was among the throngs of Cubans arrested for unpatriotic behavior and confined for eleven days in the gymnasium of the Marta Abreu University in Santa Clara. Bernal's offense was refusal to work in the fields cutting sugar cane. After his release, the threat of execution haunted and his wife, and they cautiously initiated plans to leave the country with their three young children. It took more than a year to obtain visas ..." and with the help of the Methodist Church, the Bernals were able to board a Pan Am flight for the United States of America in June 1962.
The Bernal family entered the United States in Miami, Florida. Their stay in the state was brief — a few months on account of the scarcity of employment. Subsequently, in autumn of 1962 they relocated to Chicago, Illinois. Bernal confronted the need to support his family and, because of language barriers, became employed in a factory designing artistic materials for commercial purposes. Meanwhile, he continued to produce personal art. Critics during this period observed his work revealed a transformation affected by the change in geographical environment. While in Cuba his palette did not reflect the brilliant, intense colors of his native land; but in Chicago he began to incorporate in his art the tropical hues of his Caribbean homeland.