MAY 2014

Voices of the Past

By Rhodora Derpo

Immigration Attorney

Immigrant Rights Advocate

Filipino Americans currently represent the second largest population of Asian Americans and are the largest subgroup of Filipinos who are employed in foreign countries. The migrations of Filipinos to the United States came in four distinct waves. This article will focus on the second wave of immigration that has been referred to as the manong generation. The majority of the Filipinos who came during this period were laborers and were predominantly Ilokano and Visayan.

The Manongs

"Manong" is an Ilokano term principally given to the first-born male in a Filipino family. It is also used to refer to an older brother, older male cousin, or older male relative in an extended family.

Representing the second wave of Filipinos to come to the United States during the 1920s and 30s, the manongs fulfilled the literal meaning of the term and acted as older brothers and role models for others who followed in their footsteps in the quest to find a better life in the United States – a country that, for many Filipinos, represented success, wealth, advancement, and opportunity. Once they arrived, however, their lives consisted of stoop labor and racial codes that prohibited them from owning land or marrying. (California's anti-miscegenation laws – which lasted for 11 years – forbade marriages between whites and non-whites.) These laws deprived Filipinos of a healthy and fulfilling social and family life.

The manongs, who populated Hawai`i, California, Washington, and Alaska, experienced and overcame insurmountable hardships. They spent laborious hours working as dishwashers, busboys, domestic workers, factory workers in canneries, and farm workers. Life was difficult for them – they were subject to extreme prejudice, racism, and, in many cases, violence. Hotels and other businesses had signs saying, "Positively No Filipinos Allowed," limiting the employment opportunities and social meeting places for Filipino immigrants.

Missed Opportunity

Diego Luna's new film, "Cesar Chavez," about Mexican-American civil rights icon Cesar Chavez provides a portrayal of Chavez and other (Mexican-American) activists who helped organize farmworkers in California. The film, however, misses an opportunity to address the Filipino experience as part of the larger story of American farm workers.

Resurrecting a Chapter of Labor History

The history of the farmworkers movement reflects the struggles of both Mexican and Filipino laborers. Prior to the creation of the United Farm Workers, which represents the symbolic alliance between Filipinos and Mexicans, the manongs had already played a prominent role in the California farm labor movement.

Deep Roots in Activism

The manongs lived under poor socio-economic standards. They demanded early on greater control over their wages and working conditions through the development of unions. In 1933, the manongs organized the Cannery Worker's and Farm Labor Unions. From 1934 to 1936, they led the Salinas Lettuce Strikes, an event that illustrated the Filipino laborers' determination to organize and agitate against the oppressive conditions in which they lived. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) also participated in the strikes. Both FLU and AFL's strikes were successful; through these strikes, the organizations were able to set a negotiation time and date with the owners and shippers of the lettuce industry.

Brutal Attacks against Filipino Laborers

The manongs were brutally attacked for fighting for better wages and better working conditions. For example, during negotiations between owners, shippers, and laborers, scabs broke down the strikes by setting on fire Filipino labor camps. And, in 1936, lettuce owners hired 3,000 scabs to beat the Filipino laborers when they refused to work under the owner's deplorable work conditions and contract.

Key Players in the Labor Movement

The farmworkers movement of the 1960s was born out of the Filipinos' 1965 Grape Strike. The grape strike set the stage for the boycott that would lead Filipino strike leaders Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, Pete Velasco, Ben Gines, and Andy Imutan to join alliances with Mexican leaders Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gil Padilla to create the nation's pioneering agricultural labor union, the United Farm Workers (UFW). The creation of the UFW is significant because farmers for decades had tried to pit the Mexicans and Filipinos (and different ethnic groups) against each other.

The Unsung Role of Filipino Laborers, A Story Retold

Toni Morrison states that, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Filipina American producer and director Marissa Aroy has done just that. She has released a new documentary, "The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers," depicting the pivotal role Filipinos played in the farm labor movement. Ms. Aroy's film is commendable as it presents a counter-narrative to the largely absent role of Filipino laborers in labor history. Ms. Aroy is not alone in her work – Filipino writers, other filmmakers, scholars, and historians are addressing a missing element from the predominantly Latino narrative of the labor movement to ensure that the manongs are given rightful recognition.

Do you have an immigration-related question? Contact my firm at 773.687.9282. Nagsa-salita po ako ng Tagalog. •


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