Monday, October 8, 2018

FilAm History: An unexpected lesson awaits in Monterey, California

The three laborers' shacks have a fresh coat of paint and made to look appealing to tourist are at the real locale, across the street from the office of the real-life Doc Ricketts, immortalized in John Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row.'

HERE'S A WAY to give your young ones a lesson on Filipino American history without the pain of it turning into just another boring classroom assignment.

After visiting the Monterey Aquarium and wandering through Monterey's Cannery Row amidst the seemingly endless souvenir shops and restaurants on the south side of the street, about 100 feet west of the aquarium's entrance, there's a little alcove with steps leading up.

It looks like another shortcut to the walking path and the parking structure about a block away, but take it anyway. On the second level, you'll find three ramshackle shacks. Go to the one nearest to the next flight of steps. 

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Peer inside the windows and you'll see a neatly made, single bed, a desk and a chair. On the wall there could be a poster advertising an upcoming fight between a Filipino boxer and his opponent. It purportedly is the "typical" living accommodations for cannery workers who canned the sardines that made cannery row a bustling, multi-ethnic locale for John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row

Near the door of the shack is a plaque that reads:
Filipinos were attracted in large numbers to California after the 1924 Immigration Act, excluded the Japanese, who had been a major part of the state's agricultural labor force.
By 1930, as many as 35,000 Pinoys -- young, single, male Filipino laborers -- were working California fields, hotels, restaurants and private homes. During World War II, a number of Filipinos from the island of Luzon, north of Manila, worked in the canneries and reduction plants.
When Filipino laborers weren't operating screw-cookers, rotary killns or grinders, they might be found playing cards with friends or socializing in one of the Monterey Chinatown flower-dancing clubs. The Salinas-based newspaper Philippine Mail reported on life in the larger Filipino community.
The innocent visit to a tourist attraction could be a jumping off point for a history lesson -- especially important to first-generation immigrants who through no fault of their own -- don't know how Filipinos were treated before World War II and the foundation the pre-WWII Filipinos provided so that later immigrants could pursue the American dream.

Methinks the shack has been prettied up to cover up the real living conditions of the cannery workers. 


What the cannery row shacks looked like when they were still in use.

Indeed, residents were usually single men who worked in the canneries or fished sardines during the season. Even though rent was cheap, sometimes as many as four men lived in one cabin. The little homes were a multi-cultural stew made up of men from Mexico, Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Sicily and other parts of the world. They may not have spoken each others' languages, but they shared an understanding of the work to be done.


I can easily see two to four Filipinos sharing that living space, cooking their adobo or fried fish. The living conditions would be similar to their Filipino brethren working in the nearby fields of  Watsonville and the Salinas Valley.


Inside the cannery workers' shack, there is only had one bed and it is much, much too neat.
Watsonville, of course, was the center of the anti-Filipino riots that culminated on Jan. 23, 1930 when 500 armed white men went to the farms and shot indiscriminantly into farmworker shacks, killing one Filipino farmworker, Fermin Tovera, and injuring 50 others.

Eight men were arrested but only four were brought to trial. One assailant received a one-month jail sentence and three were released on probation.

On January 23, 500 armed local whites went to the farms and shot indiscrimantly into the farmworker shacks, killin one Filipino, Fermin Tovera, and injuring 50 others. After five days of rioting, the violence ended when the local American Legion branch and a group of local citizens calmed down the white mob. Eventually, eight rioters were caught but only four were tried; one was given a maximum sentence of one month in jail, and the others were released on probation. The murderer was never caught despite the fact that there were concrete leads and a confession by the assailant.

In 2011, the State of California recently passed Assembly Concurrent Resolution 74 where it formally apologized for the past mistreatment and unjust laws against Filipino immigrants beginning in the 1920s.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo initiated the bill which was unanimously approved by the California Senate. Though not a Filipino, Alejo grew up among Filipinos in Watsonville.
In the 1930s, resentment grew among white laborers who accused Filipino workers of working for low wages. 


What really incensed white men was that Filipino men -- dressed in their dashing zoot suits and pomade hair, shiny shoes and broad-brimmed hats worn at a tilt -- were often seen dancing with the white women who worked in the local dance halls for 10-cents a dance.

“Never has the state government recognized what has happened in the past,” said Alejo. “It’s never too late to do the right thing, and I’m glad the legislature in California approved that resolution.”


The real-live marine biologist Doc Ricketts, who was a friend of Steinbeck and was immortalized in the author's Cannery Row, had his office across the street in the Pacific Research Institute. It is said that he often opened his window at the end of the work day and played Mozart so that the cannery workers would have some music as they made their way home. It is not hard to imagine that occasionally, he would catch a whiff of fried fish and adobo.

Photos by Ed Diokno
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