Times Past

Dan Krieger: Filipinos filled labor vacuum created by anti-Japanese laws

Tsunejiro Tanaka became president of the Japanese Association in the late 1920s. But because of low prices at the produce market, there was barely enough money left to pay the rent on his small farm on Vachell Lane in San Luis Obispo.

The intensive farming of vegetable crops required more labor than the Tanaka family could provide. Tsunejiro had to hire several Filipino men to work and live on the farm. Walter Tanaka recalls his childhood fears when his father did not have enough money on payday and the men chased his father and mother with machetes.

Ethnic rivalries are always unpleasant. We need to understand how outside forces often promote this type of violence.

The United States turned inward during the 1920s. Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” lost their meaning.

Much of the anti-foreign feeling was centered here in California and was aimed specifically at the Japanese. The federal court system and Congress complied. In 1922 the Takao Ozawa v. U.S. decision declared that Japanese were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

The Cable Act of 1923 declared that any American female who married “an alien ineligible to citizenship” would lose her citizenship.

In 1923, the Porterfield v. Webb decision upheld the constitutionality of California’s alien land law banning aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning real property.

Finally, the 1924 Immigration Act denies entry into the United States to virtually all Asians.

There was one group of Asians not subject to the Immigration Act. Following the American annexation of the Philippines in 1898, Filipinos came as a migrating labor supply for Hawaii plantations, California farms, and the Alaska fishing industry.

The Immigration Act of 1924 created a labor vacuum, especially in the specialized crops and truck farms of Central and Southern California.

Along the Central Coast, the sugar beet farms serving the giant Union Sugar processing plant at Betteravia felt the impact of labor shortages immediately. So too did the vegetable operations of the Tomooka, Aratani, Fukunaga families, the Pismo Pea Growers and the Oceano Vegetable Growers Association and the almond growers surrounding Paso Robles.

Filipinos came not as foreigners but as nationals with American passports. They quickly filled the jobs once held by new Japanese and Chinese immigrants.

Filipinos, chiefly men, found work through a Filipino labor contractor who would assign the man to a crew based at a farm labor camp or boarding house.

This solitary male labor force sought diversion from hard labor in gambling houses, pool halls, cockfights, and female companionship in dance halls and brothels.

Like other Americans in the vast western lands, they created fraternal organizations to lend support to one another.

The dynamics of the Filipino immigration are not well known outside the Filipino community.

The South County Historical Society is opening a new exhibit at the Odd Fellows Hall on Bridge Street in Arroyo Grande focusing on Filipino Americans, the young men who “followed the crops” in the 1920s and 1930s.

With the help of the Bancroft Library, Grace Yeh of Cal Poly’s Ethnic Studies Department and Exhibit Director Craig Rock have mapped the many different types of labor camps existing at the time in the counties of San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara. Grace’s students collected oral histories of Filipino Americans in this region, including Santa Maria and Guadalupe.

It promises to be an exciting exhibit that also covers the cultural heritage of the existing community today.

The exhibit opens at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Odd Fellows Hall, 128 Bridge Street in Arroyo Grande.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.