Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--Philip Vera Cruz

One impact of America's imperialist experiment beginning in 1898 was the migration of Filipinos to the United States. Since the Philippines were technically US property thanks to the racist visions of Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, and large swaths of the American public, they could not be excluded from the nation like the Chinese and Japanese. Businessmen, always supporting immigration to lower wages, turned to the Filipinos after the Chinese and Japanese were excluded. The whites of California, one of the nation's most historically racist states, were not happy. But they could do little, at least until 1934 when the Congress pased the Tydings-McDuffie Act that prepared the way for Filipino independence while changing the status of Filipinos from "US National" to "Alien." California's long fight to be a white state scored another victory.

Filipinos came by the thousands to California to work in farm labor. They also did a lot of canning work in the Pacific Northwest and some lumbering too. But eventually, working California fields became the most appealing option they had. Almost all of these people were single men and a lot stayed in the US to build a new life here. Many hooked up with white women. In fact, with an eye to fashion, they proved very popular with working-class white women. This again, infuriated California whites. Section 69 of the California Civil Code was amended in 1880 to prohibit the issuance of marriage licences to whites and "Negroes and Mongolians." Samuel Roldan, a California based Filipino, won his 1931 court case to marry a white woman because he argued successfully that Filipinos were not "Mongolians." But the California legislature acted in 1933 to close this loophole, adding the "Malay" race to those who could not marry whites, which included Filipinos.

Filipino workers were discriminated against up and down the line, paid the lowest wages, forced to live in substandard housing, and inundated with the chemicals of the California agricultural industry. Given their long tenure in California agriculture and their numbers, the Filipinos played a major role in the early years of the United Farm Workers union. This is where Philip Vera Cruz comes in. Vera Cruz was like thousands of migrant Filipinos. He left the Philippines in 1926, moving around the nation at first working various jobs. He spent time in Spokane, Cosmopolis, WA; and Chicago before coming to the California fields. He worked both to build a life for himself in his new homeland and to support his family back in the Philippines. But Vera Cruz was also exceptional--he was involved in Filipino issues as early as 1934 and became a founding member of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), the precursor to the UFW. Later he was a Vice-President within the UFW, serving as the top Filipino in the union. Up until almost the day he died, Vera Cruz fought for the rights of Filipinos in the United States and justice more broadly.

Sadly, many of his fights in later years were within the UFW itself. While the UFW began as a cross-racial union, pretty early on Cesar Chavez and most of the leadership made the union synonymous with Mexican identity and Chicano nationalism. On one level this made sense. The Filipino workers were aging and not replacing themselves in the population. But it also marginalized the Filipinos within the union, forgetting about their key contribution to farmworker organizing in California and increasingly turning Vera Cruz and other leading Filipinos into tokens within the union. These problems became worse thanks to poor choices Chavez made, the worst being visiting Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1978 in an attempt to create some sort of solidarity with the Filipino community. Chavez completely misread the situation when all he had to do was ask the Filipinos in his own union about it.

Vera Cruz, in an oral history turned into a book by Craig Scharlin and Lilia V. Villanueva entitled Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement provides a useful counternarrative to the heroic tales usually told about Cesar Chavez and, to a lesser extent, Dolores Huerta. Vera Cruz became embittered by the actions of Chavez and Huerta and accused them of thinking they themselves were the union and that their actions were not subject to scrunity of the membership. He tells many disturbing stories about Chavez and the rest of the leadership that, while they do not negate the many significant positive contributions these people made, do complicate the heroic narrative frequently told about them. Chavez was not a Christ-like figure. He was a man who did a lot of great things but who screwed up a lot and had a zillion flaws. Much the same could be said of Martin Luther King--in both cases having a more complex history of these men makes our knowlege and understanding richer in the long-run, as disappointing as it may be upon hearing it.

Philip Vera Cruz is representative of so many unnamed thousands of individuals who have fought for justice for minority and disempowered communities. Most of them even historians haven't heard of. Within immigrant communities, this problem is even greater. Luckily Vera Cruz made friends with some young UFW organizers who put his book together. But there are just so many great Americans that we need to learn about, understand, and weave into our understanding of this nation's hsitory.