The Watsonville Riots were five days of violence inflicted upon Filipino farmworkers by a mob of white residents in the city of Watsonville, California. The Watsonville Riots are believed to be sparked by news reports that Filipino men were dancing with white women at a local dance hall. But history provides that the true underlying cause was widespread anti-Filipino racism in California at the time.
Filipinos were the last major wave of Asian immigrants in the pre-World War II period. They worked as largely migrant farm workers as the agricultural industry of California grew. By 1917, contract laborers from China, Korea, Japan, and India were all barred from entering the U.S., all due to anti-Asian sentiment from white communities. But once the Philippines became a U.S. territory, Filipinos became U.S. nationals and could live and work in America freely. They quickly became the primary source of low-wage laborers. By 1930, almost two-thirds of the approximately 45,000 Filipinos in America resided in California (Oakland Museum of California). However, this status did not protect Filipino immigrants from the racial discrimination and violence other Asian groups endured.
• Explore The Watsonville is in the Heart digital archive, which preserves and uplifts the stories of the “manong” generation (Ilokano/Tagalog for “older brother”), the first wave of Filipino migrant farmworkers to arrive in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century.
• Donate to The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), which works to support migrant and seasonal farm workers.
• Consider: when did you learn about Filipino immigration to the U.S.? How often do you encounter media (books, movies, and TV shows) celebrating Filipino culture and history?
In the days and weeks before the rioting, politicians and community leaders had ramped up their anti-Filipino rhetoric, calling the farmworkers “a menace” and demanding that Filipino residents be deported so “white people who have inherited this country for themselves and their offspring could live.” A local judge stated, “The worst part of [the Filipino man] being here is his mixing with young white girls from thirteen to seventeen. He gives them silk underwear and makes them pregnant and crowds whites out of jobs in the bargain” (EJI). Tensions were compounded by the looming Great Depression. Not only did white people think that Filipino immigrants were “stealing their women,” they felt that they were stealing away their jobs at a time where employment was scarce.
Hundreds of white people roamed the streets between January 19 and January 23, 1930, attacking Filipino people and destroying their property. One man, Fermin Tobera, was shot and killed, and no one was tried for his murder (EJI). The violence in Watsonville ignited in other California cities across the Bay Area and Central Valley, including the bombing of the Filipino Federation of America building in Stockton on January 29 by a white mob (KSBW, Buzzfeed).
In 1933, the state of California intentionally adapted its anti-miscegenation laws to make it clear that Filipino people could not marry white people (Esquire). Other Western states followed suit (Washington State). In 1934, Congress passed the Tydings McDuffie Act, which granted the Philippines independence from the U.S. By doing so, Filipinos were no longer considered U.S. nationals and no longer had the right to live or work in this country. This essentially ended Filipino immigration to the U.S. In addition, the federal government also instituted a program to repatriate Filipinos back to the Philippines (Oakland Museum of California).
The California legislature formally apologized for its history of anti-Asian legislation and mistreatment of Filipinos in 2011, acknowledging “violations of the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Filipino Americans caused by antimiscegenation laws” and “the suffering and hardship endured by Filipino Americans as a result of governmental actions” (California Legislative Information).
The Watsonville Riots represent one of many ways that society has festered anti-Asian hate. It also contributes to the ongoing lack of dignity and respect this country gives to farm workers.
• The Watsonville riot was a violent attack on Filipino farmworkers by a mob of white residents in the city of Watsonville, California, between January 19 and January 30, 1930.
• Filipino immigrants experienced the same racial discrimination and violence other Asian immigrants endured.
• Anti-Filipino hate led to state anti-miscegenation laws and the reversal of rights for Filipino immigrants.