Filipino-Americans, Mare Island and the Labor Movement

Filipino American History Month (also known as FAHM) is celebrated in the United States during the month of October. The Filipino American National Historical Society established Filipino American History Month in the year 1988.

Mare Island is basically where Filipino and American history converge.

Filipino Americans comprise the largest Asian population within California and the third largest Asian population within the United States.

“The relationship between Mare Island and the Philippines dates back to 1898 and directly led to the employment of thousands of Filipinos until  closing of the Naval Base in 1996. Filipinos who worked at Mare Island contributed to the operations on Mare Island and subsequently helped shape the Filipino community in Vallejo as we know it today.

The 1898 war with Spain and its bloody but little-remembered sequel left Filipinos without the independence they had sought. But they had American “national” status that enabled them to immigrate to America without visas.

The ties between Filipinos and the Mare Island shipyard were not formed overnight. Filipino leaders who helped the United States defeat Spain wanted full independence and resented U.S. acquisition of their country for $20 million. That led to the Philippine-American War, which was an armed conflict between the First Philippine Republic and the United States that started right after the Spanish-American War and lasted from Feb. 4, 1899, to July 2, 1902. More than 4,000 American soldiers and about 20,000 Filipino fighters died. Estimates of Filipino civilians who were killed or died due to disease or hunger during the war ranged from 250,000 to 1 million.

It was that conflict that ultimately led to an influx of Filipinos to the San Francisco Bay Area and Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Filipinos were able to come to the USA outside normal immigration rules until the 1930s, when discriminatory laws were passed.
Many of those people were in agriculture, and Mare Island represented much better paying, more stable work. The Philippines, finally granted independence in 1946, became one of the most Americanized societies in Asia.

Some Filipinos arriving in California were government-sponsored scholars. Others found jobs in canneries or on farms in the Central Valley, or hired out for domestic work in San Francisco. And some were drawn to Vallejo and the prospect of working on Mare Island in jobs that offered good pay, regular shifts and benefits, according to Mel Orpilla, president of the Vallejo chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society. Filipinos also were able to join the Navy, although at first their only option was to enlist as stewards and mess attendants. That changed in 1919 at Mare Island with the commissioning of the destroyer USS Jose Rizal, named after a Filipino patriot executed by Spain in 1896. The destroyer was manned by about 100 Filipino enlisted sailors, trained at Mare Island to handle all shipboard work under direction of non-Filipino officers.

Despite their rapid assimilation into American culture, many discriminatory barriers remained for Filipinos. During the Great Depression, in 1934, Congress limited Filipino immigrants, perceived as a social problem and economic threat, to just 50 PEOPLE A YEAR!  Other laws sought to prevent Filipinos from marrying whites, although interracial marriages were common here.

Many Filipinos who tried to get jobs in defense plants at the start of World War II were denied employment at first. But that changed in mid-1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his famous Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in defense industry hiring based on race, creed, color or national origin. By 1942, there were about 1,500 Filipinos employed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. With the start of World War II, Filipinos from Vallejo enlisted in the military in large numbers. Some who joined the Army were assigned to Filipino infantry battalions and sent to the Philippines to pave the way for Gen. Douglas McArthur’s return there. Most of those who enlisted in the Navy, instead of being trained for a wide range of jobs, were relegated to steward assignments.

At the end of the war, Congress approved the 1946 Rescission Act that denied benefits to Filipinos who served in the Philippine Commonwealth Army under the U.S. military. But Congress also passed the War Brides Act, which gave Filipinos who served in the U.S. military the opportunity to go back to the Philippines, bring home brides and raise “baby boomer” children. Over the years, Vallejo’s Asian population grew to about 30,000, or about a fourth of all the city’s residents. Filipinos are the largest segment of that Asian population, totaling about 25,000.

Filipinos and the Labor Movement

In California, all students learn about Cesar Chavez and the farm labor movement in their study of state and US history. What is not widely known is the important contributions of Filipino Americans to this movement. The California Legislature passed AB 123 in 2013 to place a much greater emphasis on Filipino American contributions to the farm labor movement. 

"It is important that pupils learn about the influence of Filipino Americans and their culture on the farmworker labor movement. The formation and continuing work of the farmworker labor movement have had an enormous impact on helping to stop the suppression and oppression of farmworkers and the general working public on a national scale. Unfortunately, the story of how the Filipino American labor leaders and workers helped create the farmworker labor movement has been greatly ignored by national and international media.”

"In the '20s and '30s, 100,000 Filipino men flocked to America seeking new opportunities. ... They became migrant workers and followed the crop cycles all over the West Coast." Farm owners often pitted Filipino workers against Mexican workers in an attempt to sabotage protests.
Despite those attempts, the biggest protest, the Delano Grape Strike, was built on a partnership between the two groups.

On Sept. 8, 1965, Filipino farmers lead by Larry Itliong protested unfair wages and working conditions. Cesar Chavez, who led the Mexican farmers, wanted to wait two or three years before they protested. But Itliong told Chavez they couldn’t wait; the Manongs were getting old. Itliong asked him to join forces and together they founded United Farm Workers, or UFW.

"The work he (Itliong) did was significant enough to get us a union when I think for the most part Filipinos didn't really speak up.  There was a lot of racial discrimination against them,"

The farm labor strike lasted five years and gained national and international support. The successful protest resulted in a contract granting farmers fair wages, benefits, and protections.

"And it's so important to humanize and let communities know and let kids of color and their families know that Filipinos are an important part of American history,"

54 For Humanity Day 27
Jim O'Connor Ph.D. (he/him/his)
Professor and Founding Dean Emeritus of the College of Education and Health Sciences
Director of the Center for Innovative Learning and Teaching, Western Division
Touro University California