Watsonville riots

Last updated

The Watsonville riots was a period of racial violence which took place in Watsonville, California from January 19 to January 23, 1930. Involving altercations between Filipino American farm workers and local residents opposed to immigration, the riots highlighted the racial and socioeconomic tensions in California's agricultural communities. [1]

Watsonville, California City in California in California

Watsonville is a city in Santa Cruz County, California, United States. The population was 51,199 according to the 2010 census. Located on the central coast of California, the economy centers predominantly around the farming industry. It is known for growing strawberries, apples, lettuce and a host of other vegetables. Watsonville is home to people of varied ethnic backgrounds. There is a large Hispanic population, as well as groups of Croatians, Filipinos, Portuguese, Sikhs, and Japanese that live and work in the city.

Nativism is the political policy of promoting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants, including by supporting immigration-restriction measures.



Internal migration

As U.S. nationals, Filipinos had the legal right to work in the United States, and as early as 1906 they were working on Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations as full-time laborers. Assuming the Filipino workers' unfamiliarity with their rights, employers paid sakadas the lowest wages among all ethnic laborers; and Filipinos were introduced as strikebreakers as part of a divide and rule strategy to prevent cross-ethnic mobilization and thereby ensure smooth production processes . [2]

Sakadas were Filipino men imported by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association to Hawaii as "skilled laborers" from 1906 to 1946 mainly from the Visayas and Ilocos regions of the Philippines.

Divide and rule gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy

Divide and rule, or divide and conquer, in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.

The Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, which targeted non-whites of Asian descent, allowed Filipinos to answer the growing demand for labor on the U.S. mainland. From the 1920s on, "overwhelmingly young, single, and male" [3] Filipinos migrated to the Pacific Coast, joining Mexicans in positions previously filled by Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians. [4] In California, Filipinos were the dominant Asian farm labor force during the next two decades. [5]

Immigration Act of 1917 United States law

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the most sweeping immigration act the United States had passed until that time. It was the second act, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, aimed at restricting immigrants, and marked a turn toward nativism. The law imposed literacy tests on immigrants, created new categories of inadmissible persons, and barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific zone. It governed immigration policy until being amended by the Immigration Act of 1924; both were revised by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

Immigration Act of 1924 immigration-related US Congress Act of 1924

The Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson–Reed Act, including the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act, was a United States federal law that prevented immigration from Asia, set quotas on the number of immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, and provided funding and an enforcement mechanism to carry out the longstanding ban on other immigrants.

West Coast of the United States Coastline

The West Coast or Pacific Coast is the coastline along which the continental Western United States meets the North Pacific Ocean. As a region, this term most often refers to the coastal states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. More specifically, it refers to an area defined on the east by the Alaska Range, Cascade Range, Sierra Nevada, and Mojave Desert, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The United States Census groups the five states of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii together as the Pacific States division.

Farm life

Filipino laborers' resilience in harsh working conditions made them favorite recruits among farm operators. In California's Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys, Filipinos were often assigned to the backbreaking work of cultivating and harvesting asparagus, celery, and lettuce. As in Hawaii, the industry and perceived passivity of these little brown brothers were used to counter the so-called "laziness" of working-class whites and other ethnic groups. [6]

The Santa Clara Valley runs south-southeast from the southern end of San Francisco Bay in Northern California in the United States. The northern, urbanized end of the valley is part of a region locally known as the "South Bay" and also part of the electronics, research, and technology area known as Silicon Valley. Santa Clara Valley consists of most of Santa Clara County, including its county seat, San Jose, as well as a small portion of San Benito County. The valley, named after the Spanish Mission Santa Clara, was for a time known as the Valley of Heart's Delight for its high concentration of orchards, flowering trees, and plants. Until the 1960s it was the largest fruit producing and packing region in the world with 39 canneries.

San Joaquin Valley Southern part of the Central Valley in California

The San Joaquin Valley is the area of the Central Valley of the U.S. state of California that lies south of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and is drained by the San Joaquin River. It comprises seven counties of Northern and one of Southern California, including, in the north, all of San Joaquin and Kings counties, most of Stanislaus, Merced, and Fresno counties, and parts of Madera and Tulare counties, along with a majority of Kern County, in Southern California. Although a majority of the valley is rural, it does contain cities such as Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, Modesto, Turlock, Tulare, Porterville, Visalia, Merced, and Hanford.

Due to gender bias in immigration policy and hiring practices, of the 30,000 Filipino laborers following the cycle of seasonal farm work, only 1 in 14 were women. [7] Unable to meet Filipinas, Filipino farm workers sought the companionship of women outside their own ethnic community, which further aggravated mounting racial discord. [8]

Mounting tensions

In the next few years, white men decrying the takeover of jobs and white women by Filipinos resorted to vigilantism to deal with the "third Asiatic invasion." Filipino laborers frequenting pool halls or attending street fairs in Stockton, Dinuba, Exeter, and Fresno risked being attacked by nativists threatened by the swelling labor pool as well as the Filipino's presumed predatory sexual nature. [9]

Stockton, California City in California, United States

Stockton is the county seat of San Joaquin County in the Central Valley of the U.S. state of California. Stockton was founded by Captain Charles Maria Weber in 1849 after he acquired Rancho Campo de los Franceses. The city is named after Robert F. Stockton, and it was the first community in California to have a name not of Spanish or Native American origin. The city is located on the San Joaquin River in the northern San Joaquin Valley and had an estimated population of 320,554 by the California Department of Finance for 2017. Stockton is the 13th largest city in California and the 63rd largest city in the United States. It was named an All-America City in 1999, 2004, 2015 and again in 2017.

Exeter, California City in California, United States

Exeter is a city in Tulare County, California, United States. It is situated in the San Joaquin Valley near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The population was 10,334 at the 2010 census.

In October 1929, Filipinos at a street carnival in Exeter were shot with rubber bands as they walked with their white female companions. In response to the knifing of a heckler, a mob of 300 white men led by then Chief of Police C. E. Joyner burned the barn of a rancher known to hire Filipinos; and Joyner ordered the shutdown of a nearby labor camp. According to local press, the riot was caused primarily by Filipinos' insistence on equal treatment by white women. [10]

Two months later, in the morning of December 2, 1929, in Watsonville, a coastal town 189 miles (304 km) away, police raided a boardinghouse and found two white girls, aged 16 and 11, sleeping in the same room with Perfecto Bandalan, a 25-year-old lettuce grower. The Watsonville community was outraged and remained so even after learning that Bandalan and 16-year-old Esther Schmick were engaged, and that they were caring for Esther's sister Bertha at her mother's request. [11]


Near midnight on January 18, 1930, 500 white men and youths gathered outside a Filipino dance club in the Palm Beach section of Watsonville. [12] The club was owned by a Filipino man and offered dances with the nine white women who lived there. The mob came with clubs and weapons intending to take the women out and burn the place down. The owners threatened to shoot if the rioters persisted, and when the mob refused to leave, the owners opened fire. Police broke up the fight with gas bombs. Two days later, on January 20, a group of Filipino men met with a group of white men near the Pajaro River bridge to settle the score. A group of hispanic men then arrived and took sides with the whites. The riot began and continued for five days. [13]

Hunting parties were organized; the white mob was run like a "military" operation with leaders giving orders to attack or withdraw. They dragged Filipinos from their homes and beat them. They threw Filipinos off the Pajaro River bridge. They ranged up the San Juan road to attack Filipinos at the Storm and Detlefsen ranches; at Riberal's labor camp, twenty-two Filipinos were dragged out and beaten almost to death. A Chinese apple-dryer that employed Filipinos was demolished; shots were fired into a Filipino home on Ford Street; and 22-year-old Fermin Tobera died after being shot in the heart when he was hiding in a closet with 11 others, trying to avoid the rounds of bullets fired at a bunkhouse in Murphy Ranch in San Juan Road on the 23rd. [14]

The police in Watsonville, led by Sheriff Nick Sinnott, gathered as many Filipinos as they could rescue and guarded them in the City Council's chamber while Monterey County Sheriff Carl Abbott secured the Pajaro side of the river against further riot. [15]


The violence spread to Stockton, San Francisco, San Jose, and other cities. [14] A Filipino club was blown up in Stockton, and the blast was blamed on the Filipinos themselves. [16] In Gilroy, masked men warned a Japanese farmer to discharge his Filipinos. Fifty unemployed whites and Filipinos were hustled out of town by police, trying to preempt possible fighting.

Many Filipinos fled the country. News of the riots spread to the Philippines, where there were protests in solidarity. The body of Fermin Tobera was sent to Manila, where he is considered a martyr, a symbol of the Filipinos' fight for independence and equality. [17]

The five days of the Watsonville riots had a profound impact on California's attitude toward imported Asian labor. As a result, Filipino immigration plummeted, and while they remained a significant part of the labor in the fields, they began to be replaced by Mexicans. [18]

Yet, seven months after the Watsonville riots, Filipino lettuce pickers carried out a successful strike in Salinas for better treatment. These strikes were repeated again in the Salinas Lettuce Strike of 1934 and in 1936. In addition, although their relationships were frowned upon, white women and Filipino men continued to meet and marry. [19]

In September 4, 2011, California apologized to Filipinos and Filipino Americans in an Assembly resolution authored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas. "Filipino Americans have a proud history of hard work and perseverance," Alejo said in a statement. "California, however, does not have as proud a history regarding its treatment of Filipino Americans. For these past injustices, it's time that we recognize the pain and suffering this community has endured." [14]


  1. De Witt 1979, p. 290.
  2. Filipino Migration to the United States, University of Hawaii
  3. Lee and Yung 2011, p. 276.
  4. Guerin-Gonzales 1994, p. 22.
  5. Lee and Yung 2011, p. 278.
  6. Baldoz 2011, p. 67.
  7. San Juan, Jr. 2000, p. 125.
  8. Joel S. Franks (2000). Crossing Sidelines, Crossing Cultures: Sport and Asian Pacific American Cultural Citizenship. University Press of America. p. 35. ISBN   978-0-7618-1592-1.
    "Depression Era: 1930s: Watsonville Riots". Picture This. Oakland Museum of California. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  9. Lee and Yung 2010, p. 280.
  10. De Witt 1979, p. 294.
  11. Baldoz 2011, pp. 124-125.
  12. Juanita Tamayo Lott (2006). Common Destiny: Filipino American Generations. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 21. ISBN   978-0-7425-4651-6.
  13. Jonathan H. X. Lee (16 January 2015). History of Asian Americans: Exploring Diverse Roots: Exploring Diverse Roots. ABC-CLIO. p. 103. ISBN   978-0-313-38459-2.
  14. 1 2 3 Jones, Donna (11 September 2011). "Riots in 1930 revealed Watsonville racism: California apologizes to Filipino Americans". Santa Cruz Sentinel. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  15. DeWitt, Howard A. (Fall 1979). "The Watsonville Anti-Filipino Riot of 1930: A Case Study of the Great Depression and Ethnic Conflict in California". Southern California Quarterly. 61 (3): 291–302. doi:10.2307/41170831. JSTOR   41170831.
  16. Dawn B. Mabalon, Ph.D.; Rico Reyes; Filipino American National Historical So (2008). Filipinos in Stockton. Arcadia Publishing. p. 25. ISBN   978-0-7385-5624-6.
  17. Okada, Taihei (2012). "Underside of Independence Politics Filipino Reactions to Anti-Filipino Riots in the United States". Philippine Studies: Historical & Ethnographic Viewpoints. 60 (3): 307–335. doi:10.1353/phs.2012.0027. JSTOR   42634724.
  18. Melendy, H. Brett (November 1974). "Filipinos in the United States". Pacific Historical Review. 43 (4): 520–574. doi:10.2307/3638431. JSTOR   3638431.
  19. Sindel, Julie (2006). "Filipino Farm Labor Organization: A Lesson in Filipino Leadership" (PDF). Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University (26): 161–178.

Related Research Articles

Mass racial violence in the United States, also called race riots, can include such disparate events as:

Chinese Exclusion Act act of US Congress in 1882 that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. Building on the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating.

United Farm Workers Organization

The United Farm Workers of America, or more commonly just United Farm Workers (UFW), is a labor union for farmworkers in the United States. It originated from the merger of two workers' rights organizations, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by organizer Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. They became allied and transformed from workers' rights organizations into a union as a result of a series of strikes in 1965, when the mostly Filipino farmworkers of the AWOC in Delano, California initiated a grape strike, and the NFWA went on strike in support. As a result of the commonality in goals and methods, the NFWA and the AWOC formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee on August 22, 1966. This organization was accepted into the AFL-CIO in 1972 and changed its name to the United Farm workers Union.

The Asiatic Exclusion League, often abbreviated AEL, was an organization formed in the early twentieth century in the United States and Canada that aimed to prevent immigration of people of Asian origin.

The Alaskeros are Filipino seasonal migrant workers in the United States and their descendants. They worked in salmon canneries in Alaska during the summer, and on farms on the west coast during the rest of the year. The Alaskeros were instrumental in the formation of the first Filipino-led union in the U.S., the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, Local 7.

Roldan v. Los Angeles County, 129 Cal. App. 267, 18 P.2d 706, was a 1930s court case in California confirming that the state's anti-miscegenation laws at the time did not bar the marriage of a Filipino and a white person. However, the precedent lasted barely a week before the law was specifically amended to illegalize such marriages.

Asian immigration to the United States refers to immigration to the United States from part of the continent of Asia, which including East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Asian-origin populations have historically been in the territory that would become the United States since the 16th century. A first major wave of Asian immigration occurred in the late 19th century, primarily in Hawaii and the West Coast. Asian Americans experienced exclusion, and limitations to immigration, by law from the United States between 1875 and 1965, and were largely prohibited from naturalization until the 1940s. Since the elimination of Asian exclusion laws and the reform of the immigration system in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, there has been a large increase in the number of immigrants to the United States from Asia.

The history of Chinese Americans or the history of ethnic Chinese in the United States includes three major waves of Chinese immigration to the United States, beginning in the 19th century. Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on transcontinental railroads such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in mining, and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. Industrial employers were eager for this new and cheap labor, whites were stirred to anger by the "yellow peril.” Despite provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against immigrants of what they regarded as a degraded race and "cheap Chinese labor.”

Rock Springs massacre incident that occurred on September 2, 1885 in Rock Springs

The Rock Springs massacre, also known as the Rock Springs Riot, occurred on September 2, 1885, in the present-day United States city of Rock Springs in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. The riot, and resulting massacre of immigrant Chinese miners by white immigrant miners, was the result of racial prejudice toward the Chinese miners, who were perceived to be taking jobs from the white miners. The Union Pacific Coal Department found it economically beneficial to give preference in hiring to Chinese miners, who were willing to work for lower wages than their white counterparts, angering the white miners. When the rioting ended, at least 28 Chinese miners were dead and 15 were injured. Rioters burned 78 Chinese homes, resulting in approximately US$150,000 in property damage.

Little Manila is an area in Stockton, California that was inhabited by predominantly Filipino American agricultural workers from the 1930s on.

Ernesto Mangaoang was a Filipino American labor organizer. A communist and longtime leader of immigrant Filipino laborers, Mangaoang was closely associated with Chris Mensalvas, and was a personal friend of the famous Filipino American intellectual and activist Carlos Bulosan.

History of Filipino Americans history examining Filipino experience in the United States

Filipinos in what is now the United States were first documented in the 16th century, with small settlements beginning in the 18th century. Mass migration did not begin until the early 20th century, and for a period the History of the Philippines merged with that of the United States. After the independence of the Philippines from the United States, Filipino Americans continued to grow in population and had events that are associated with them.

Demographics of Filipino Americans

The demographics of Filipino Americans describe a heterogeneous group of people in the United States who trace their ancestry to the Philippines. As of the 2010 Census, there were 3.4 million Filipino Americans, including Multiracial Americans who were part Filipino, with the United States Department of State in 2011 estimating the population at 4 million. Filipino Americans constitute the second-largest population of Asian Americans, and the largest population of Overseas Filipinos.

Larry Itliong American activist

Larry Dulay Itliong, also known as "Seven Fingers", was a Filipino American labor organizer. He organized West Coast agricultural workers starting in the 1930s, and rose to national prominence in 1965, when he, Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco, walked off the farms of area table-grape growers, demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage, that became known as the Delano grape strike. He has been described as "one of the fathers of the West Coast labor movement."

Anti-Filipino sentiment refers to the general dislike or hate towards the Philippines, Filipinos or Filipino culture.

The Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, Local 7 was the first Filipino-led union in the United States.

The Salinas Lettuce strike of 1934 ran from August 27 to September 24, 1934, in the Salinas Valley of California. This strike of lettuce cutters and shed workers was begun and largely maintained by the recently formed Filipino Labor Union and came to highlight ethnic discrimination and union repression. Acts of violence from both frustrated workers and vigilante bands threatened the strike's integrity and support base. Ultimately, the strike came to a close and an agreement was reached that gave limited satisfaction to the growers and the workers.

<i>Little Manila Is in the Heart</i>

Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon is a book with three parts that depict the formation of Filipina/o American identities and community in the Little Manila in Stockton, California during the twentieth century. The book touches on issues including immigration, colonialism, race, gender, labor, and activism. Bohulano Mabalon draws on rich oral histories as well as historical archives such as the National Pinoy Archives and Filipino American National Historical Society to provide an analysis on Filipina/o experience. The book won the honorable mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award by the Organization of American Historians in 2014.

The Yakima Valley riots took place in Washington state from November 8 - 11 in 1927. This riot took the homes, jobs, and lives of many Filipinos in the area. Unable to receive help or protection from the white police, Filipinos were easy targets for radicalized and angered whites who saw them as thieves of their women and jobs. Under the cover or darkness, and occasionally during the daytime, mobs of white men would harass, threaten, beat, and even kill innocent Filipinos for no other reason than their presence. This is just a single example of the violence that Filipinos faced in America due to their employment as laborers. Anti-Filipino sentiments forced the passing of legal acts to further push Filipinos out of America.