As the last major wave of Asian immigrant labor in the pre World War II period, Filipinos supplied a vital labor supply for California's exploding agricultural industry. Like the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, South Asians, and Mexicans before them, Filipinos were largely migrant farm workers. During the last quarter of the 19th century, California had quickly become the vegetable and fruit basket of America. Of all fruit and vegetable crops grown in the U.S., 4% came from California in 1879. Thirty years later California was producing approximately 50% of all fruit and vegetables grown in the U.S. The development of the refrigerated railroad car and the completion of the transcontinental railroad and other national rail lines during the late 19th century allowed California crops to be shipped and sold all over the country.
The cheap farm labor needed to make California agriculture so immensely profitable came largely from Asian contract labor. Working class Whites felt threatened by these new immigrants. California politicians like James Phelan often played to nativist fears, making anti Asian immigration a staple of California politics. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and ending with the Immigration Act of 1917, laws and informal treaty agreements prohibited the immigration of Asian contract laborers. These laws and agreements limited the cheap labor needed for California’s economic growth, particularly its flourishing agricultural industry. As each new Asian immigrant group was barred from entry, employers sought recruits from a different Asian nation. By 1917, contract laborers from China, Korea, Japan, and India were all barred from entering the U.S. However, unlike other Asian migrants, Filipinos held a unique status as U.S. nationals that allowed them to immigrate and made them a valuable labor source in California.
After the Spanish American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million dollars. The Filipinos, who believed the U.S. was going to grant them independence, were outraged and waged a war of independence against the United States. Although the Philippine American War officially ended in 1902, remnants of various resistance groups continued fighting until 1913. Once the Philippines became a U.S. territory, Filipinos became U.S. nationals. They did not have the rights of American citizens, but they did have the right to live and work in the United States or any U.S. territory. As the only Asian immigrant group that could legally enter America, Filipinos quickly became one of California’s primary sources of cheap labor during the 1920s. By 1930, almost 2/3 of the approximately 45,000 Filipinos in America resided in California.
Like other Asian immigrant groups before them, Filipinos suffered intense discrimination and violence from Whites. White working class men felt especially threatened by Filipino labor because farmers paid Filipinos significantly lower wages than White workers. In addition, White Americans saw Filipino men as sexual competition. Popular recreational activities among farm laborers included carousing the pool halls and taxi dance halls in cities like San Francisco, Salinas and Stockton. In taxi dance halls, young men would purchase a ten cent ticket which bought one dance with a young lady. Sometimes White taxi dance girls would date Filipino men, infuriating local White communities and further increasing tensions. During this time, interracial relationships were considered taboo. California’s anti-miscegenation laws even made marriages between Whites and non-Whites illegal. Many Whites felt the Filipinos were not only taking jobs, but also acting “uppity,” flaunting social norms by dating White girls.
This working class anger over labor competition and racial mixing between Filipino men and White women was a powder keg waiting to explode. In the fall of 1929, a rash of violence against Filipinos erupted in the Watsonville/Salinas area. Race riots exploded in Exeter, CA when farm owners replaced White fig and grape workers with Filipino labor. Three hundred White workers stormed the Filipino camp, stoning and clubbing fifty Filipino workers. In December, the North Monterey Chamber of Commerce publicly called for businesses to stop hiring Filipinos, claiming Filipinos were a moral and sanitary threat to the White community. On December 5th, the Watsonville Evening Pajaronian published a picture of Filipino immigrant Perfecto Bandalan and Ester Schmink, a local White teenager, embracing on the front page. When a new Filipino dance hall opened in January 1930, White Watsonville residents exploded in anger. Four days of rioting began on January 20th. A mob of over 200 White citizens roamed the streets hunting Filipinos. The next day the new taxi dance hall was raided by a group of White Watsonville residents. Two days later a crowd of 500 Whites destroyed the Filipino neighborhood in Watsonville, pulling Filipinos out of the taxi dance and beating them in the streets. One man was shot in the back as he tried to escape the violence.
Growing anti-Filipino sentiment and the scarcity of jobs during the Great Depression helped contribute to the passage of the Tydings McDuffie Act in 1934, which granted the Philippines independence. Supporters of the act knew that granting independence would also redefine the Philippines a sovereign nation, making Filipinos aliens and essentially ending unchecked Filipino migration into the U.S. The federal government also instituted a program to repatriate Filipinos back to the Philippines. Ironically, by the 1930s Filipino immigration had slowed considerably because of the Great Depression.
- Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.
- Students trace the rise of the United States to its role as a world power in the twentieth century.