Looking back at Filipino-American History Month, I realize I don’t know many Filipino-American figures. With this realization, I took it upon myself to find one that I could read and educate others about. I stumbled upon Philip Vera Cruz, with an underlying feeling that I’d heard the name before but I couldn’t remember why. However, after conducting some research, I discovered that Philip Vera Cruz represents so much more than the legacy of Filipino-Americans. He had such a profound impact on the role of immigrants within the United States. Within his story, there are labor rights struggles, discrimination in the legal system, the politics between immigrants in the United States and those still in the homeland, and the strength that can be seen when multiple minorities unite together. Philip Vera Cruz does not just honor the rights and struggle of Filipino-American laborers, but the experience of all immigrants in America.
Born in Saoang, San Juan, Ilocos Sur, Philippine Islands on December 25, 1905, Vera Cruz was the eldest child of Andriano Sanchez Vera Cruz and Maria Villamin and had two siblings, Martin and Leonor. In 1926, at the age of 20, he decided to immigrate to America, boarding the Empress of Asia. His goal was simple: get educated, get a job, earn money, and then send said money back to his family in the Philippines. He was considered part of the “Manong generation”, one the first wave of Filipino migrant workers who came to the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The majority of the migrant workers were single men who came for better jobs and education. However, in a post Great Depression Era, many challenges were in the way. They faced discrimination in the workplace, terrible labor conditions, anti-miscegenation laws, and harsh living conditions, often on the basis of race. Specifically, the anti-miscegenation laws in California banned Filipino men from marrying white women. There were many obstacles that kept these single Filipino men from having families. For example, in 1934, there was the Tydings-McDuffie Act, also known as the Philippine Independence Act which restricted immigration from the Philippines and classified them as “aliens”. Over 100,000 migrant Filipino workers were separated from any Filpina women. Many ended up old, unmarried, and without families.
During this time, Vera Cruz worked, like the majority, by “following the seasons”, and taking jobs wherever there were openings. This led him to travel from places like Alaska to Chicago. All the money he would earn would go straight back to his family in the Philippines. This all changed in August of 1942, Philip Vera Cruz was drafted for World War II. He was sent to San Luis Obispo California for training. Later, he was assigned to the 2nd Filipino Infantry regiment at Camp Cooke. He was soon discharged due to his age at the time, thirty-eight, but joined other Filipino laborers in factories to help the war efforts in other ways. After this, Vera Cruz decided to settle down in Delano, Central Valley California and bought his own property in Richgrove, Delano. This is when he would become a labor organizer, the role he is known for today.
In 1948, he joined the Asparagus Strike in Stockton, along with fellow Filipino-American activist Larry Itliong. This strike was one of the first major agricultural protests post World War II. After, Vera Cruz decided to join the National Farm Labor Union, also known as the NFLU. This is where he was able to help and organize mainly Filipino workers, but also those of Mexican and Black descent. For some time, he stepped away from the organization, despite being the president and stopped helping laborers. In the mid 1960’s, he was approached to join the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which was composed of a majority of Filipino workers. He paid for his union dues, later citing this to be the most important two dollars in his life. Soon after he joined, on September 8, 1965, the union voted in the Filipino Community Hall in Delano to strike against the grape growers in Delano California. They were striking for a variety of reasons, including, better pay, medical care, retirement funds and safer working conditions.
The flaw within this strike was easy to see however. The workers were easily replaceable to the grape growers eyes. To combat this, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee needed the support and unity of other unions, like that of the Mexican farmworkers. They were a part of the National Farm Workers Association, the NFWA, which was run by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. It was Larry Itliong who was able to convince them to stand with the AWOC and they eventually coordinated the Delano Farmworkers 1965-1966 grape strike and boycott. Later, they merged into the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1967 and went on to have many more strikes. Vera Cruz became the second vice-president for 12 years and was known to be able to rally the crowds and be a strong public speaker. He also created a retirement village for elderly Filipino workers, named the Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village after a farmworker who died while on a picket line in 1967. It opened its doors in 1974.
Unfortunately, this merger started to take a turn for the worse as Filipino farm workers became the minority in the UFW and felt that they were no longer being heard. This can clearly be shown in the union’s stance on Philippine martial law. This was under President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who enacted martial law on September 23rd, 1972. This completely barred any meeting or organizations while those who spoke out against him were arrested, jailed and killed without a fair trial. This lasted for 14 years until the people revolted in 1986 and took him out of power. While Vera Cruz heavily condemned the President and his martial law, Chávez, in 1977 was invited by him to receive an award for improving the labor condition of Filipino migrant workers. Vera Cruz did not support Chávez going to accept the award and spoke out. He went anyway, putting the final nail in the coffin for Vera Cruz who resigned from the United Farm Workers.
This did not discourage Vera Cruz to stop working and he continued to recruit people for Filipino activism, especially targeting young adults. He later received the Ninoy M. Aquino award in the Philippines. This was the first time he returned to the Philippines and saw his family for the first time in 60 years. Philip Vera Cruz then died in Bakersfield, California on June 12, 1944 at age 89. In 2013, the New Haven Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area renamed a school after Vera Crux and Larry Itliong, the first school to be named after Filipino Americans.
The legacy of Philip Vera Cruz is one that can be traced throughout American history, paving the way for the first generation of Filipino migrants to those who continue to come to America today. He continued to educate all ages of activism and their identities of Filipino-Americans, making the community that we have in this country today. According to the United States government, more than four million Filipino Americans live in the United States. Their journeys within the United States could not have been so successful if it weren’t for countless activists like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz leading the way. Looking at the bigger picture, Philip Vera Cruz led the way for all immigrants in the United States, proving that you can make a difference and change America for the better. He is an inspiration for all.
About the Author: Rebecca is a writer and editor for the blog at The Bittermelon. In her free time, Rebecca enjoys writing and playing volleyball.