Filipinos in America – Part 1 – Early Exodus

During the Great Depression of the late 20s, uneducated Ilocano teenage peasants were hired by the thousands to fill up the labor shortage in vegetable farms of California. Majority of these migrant workers did not even speak English and were guided by the few who did. They journeyed in cramp conditions aboard ships from Vigan, Ilocos Sur to Stockton, California. Today, remnants of these early migrants live in Stockton to tell the sad and painful stories of their ancestors. Stockton, in fact, is a living museum of the first Filipino exodus to the land of milk and honey.

eastwind journals

March 30, 2023 (archives tr37-1)

By Bernie V. Lopez,

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The Ilocano migrants spread across the lush asparagus farms of San Leandro and San Joaquin Valleys in California under the employ of Japanese and Chinese farm owners, who were the earlier migrants. The Japanese employers preferred the industrious and un-complaining Ilocanos and Hindus as farm labor, over the more ‘decadent’ and rebellious Tagalogs. Harvesting asparagus was a very tedious job using scissors.

Photo above. Filipino farm workers in Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, California, September 1939. Photo © Mary Oliver/Pajaro Valley Historical Association.

They later spilled over to the vegetable farms of Hawaii, where today there are vibrant Ilocano communities. There are Ilocano mayors in Hawaii. Indeed, the second capital of Hawaii is Vigan. In Hawaii, one can take a driver’s license test in Ilocano.

Filipinos were the epitome of migrant laborers. They became hobos hitching rides on cargo trains going north to Alaska. They ended in the freezing temperatures of the tuna canning factories of Anchorage, wearing only towels around their necks against the bitter cold.

Archive photo above courtesy of Alex Daley and No date, no location information.

Their harsh conditions as farmhands are vividly described by famed writer Carlos Bulosan in his book America is in the Heart. They earned 10 to 15 cents per hour. Unable to fully cope, they lived violent lives, quarreling with each other, wasting their money on gambling. Having no women, a dozen of them would fall in line to a single Mexican prostitute. Four of them would hold up the four corners of a ‘bed sheet room’, while the fifth would indulge inside with the pleasures of the flesh. They would have five-minute quickies, as the other four would prod them to make it quick, as it was tiring to hold up the bed sheets. There were restaurants with signs saying “No dogs and Filipinos allowed.” They had to bear the brunt of blatant racism.

They would buy three-piece suits on credit and proudly parade themselves among their peers. They would pay for a Model T Ford sedan on installment, go around in wild joy rides with Mexican girlfriends. Then, unable to pay for the installments after a few months, their three-piece suits and Model T’s would be repossessed by the banks. It was their desperate way of clinging to their unfulfilled dreams of America, of pretending they were no longer poor. Bulosan, encouraged by anti-racist American friends, wrote about the evils of American society against Filipinos. His book catapulted him to fame.

When I was in New York in the 70s, I met Cynthia, a pretty Filipino American, descendant of an Ilocano peasant farmhand, who, in our brief romantic stint, invited me to Vancouver, Canada. There, she introduced me to her 82-year-old bachelor grand-uncle, who survived the farms of San Leandro. She brought me to a huge garden where he worked for the last half a century. He was a gardener for three generations of a wealthy family. His arthritic hands were gnarled, but he kept on pruning plants because he had nothing else to do. Yet, he was happy in his simple life as an aging bachelor.

In the evening, Cynthia brought me to a Filipino ‘ball’ where the women wore ‘patadyongs’ (formal Spanish-Filipino dress) which smelled of moth balls. They were conversing animatedly in Ilocano, clinging to their forgotten roots, eating pinakbet (Ilocano version of Chop Suey or vegetable mix) and bagnet (Ilocano deep fried pork). I was totally awed and inspired by their resilience, both old and new generations.

Some in the new generation were activists fighting for the Filipino cause. Their grandparents spoke in Ilocano and they would answer in English. Both understood each other perfectly. I was able to witness first-hand remnants of the Ilocano peasant farmhands of the roaring 20s. Having read Bulosan, I could discern their former lives of pain and endurance.

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