It is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This is the time of the year where we acknowledge the contributions and heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. As is the case with every heritage or history month, we should do this year-round. I always try to share some history during heritage months. Typically, these months revolve around historically marginalized groups, but I try and steer clear of trauma and oppression-based stories because quite frankly we get enough of that already and nobody’s history should be solely defined by the atrocities done to them. However, this is a special case. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its perceived origins, Asian people have become a bigger target for hate. People are aware of that, but I have recently become aware that people are under the mistaken impression that discrimination against Asians in America is somehow new. The perception being that until COVID hit, the Asian community was largely unaffected by prejudice.
If you are a little bit more in the know, you are probably aware of at least a few dark points in Asian-American history like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was a law that attempted to ban all Chinese immigrants from the US, or the Japanese internment camps, where over 100,000 US citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned during WWII. But unfortunately, there are many other lesser-known incidents that we should learn about as well. One of these is the Watsonville Riots.
The Watsonville Riots was a period of race-based violence against Filipino laborers that started in Watsonville, California. The lead-up to the riots was born of the typical anti-immigrant sentiment of the day. Filipino laborers were often brought in for farm work and quickly became favorites among farm owners. By this point, Asian labor was already a hotly contested topic and a source of anti-immigrant campaigns. Filipinos, however, were technically US nationals so previous race-based laws aimed at blocking immigration from Asia to the US did not impact them. In fact, it made them more desirable to farm owners. As the numbers of largely male Filipino laborers grew, so too did the push back of the white communities.
This particular incident starts as so many race-based incidents in US history do, the courting, or perceived courting of white females. As the vast majority of the Filipino laborers that came over were male, most of them were limited to dating the white women who were around. As they began to date and even marry white women, locals began to lash out. There are reports of attacks on Filipinos throughout the 1920s, many of those attacks coming after locals spotted Filipino men with their white companions. The Watsonville Riot was no different. On December 2, 1929, police raided a boarding house and found a Filipino lettuce grower, Perfecto Bandalan, in the same room with his white fiancé and her younger sister whom they were caring for at the mother’s request. Nevertheless, the non-Filipino citizens of Watsonville were outraged.
Around a month later 500 white men attacked a Filipino dance club where white women were known to dance with Filipino men. The owners and club goers clashed with the white mob until the police broke up the disturbance with gas bombs. A couple of days later Filipino men met with a large group of white men presumably to fight. A large group of Hispanic men joined in and took sides with the white men which triggered the riot.
During the course of the riot, mobs of white men dragged Filipinos from their homes, attacked camps and farms known to employ them. The riots lasted five days and spread to San Francisco, San Jose, and other cities in the region. Watsonville police attempted to gather Filipinos in order to guard them in the city council’s chamber. 22-year-old Fermin Tobera was killed in the riot after someone fired a shot into the home he was hiding in. Nobody was ever charged in relation to that crime. Only seven men were charged for the rioting in general all receiving light sentences.
In the aftermath of the riot many Filipinos fled the country. The Tydings–McDuffie Act reclassified all Filipinos as aliens and restricted their immigration to 50 per year which caused Filipino immigration to plumet. California sought to ban interracial marriage between Filipinos and whites.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the Filipino community received a formal apology from the state of California.
Asian discrimination in this country is long and documented. Yet many people are still unaware of their plight. Our ignorance does not negate history. Our curricula should do a better job of including the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It should include the full history.