|Remembering the Watsonville Riots|
This day in 1929 marked the beginning of one of the worst episodes of anti-Asian American mob violence in our nation's history, the Watsonville Riots. In this article, Richard Meynell explores the racist roots and continuing relevance of these tragic events.
By Richard B. Meynell
For more than one hundred years California has depended on cheap imported labor to harvest its crops. The dilemma for agriculture and the state has been how to mitigate a chronic labor shortage in the fields without raising ethnic tension. Foreign workers who have wished to remain or assimilate periodically have encountered a racist reaction from local nativists in the form of sporadic violence, calls for limits on imported labor and, ultimately, expulsion. This pattern, which we see echoed today in the passage of Proposition 187, has been repeated in turn with the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos.
What were the causes of the anti-Filipino riots in cities and towns all over California in 1930, precipitated by—or culminating in—the five days of vigilante terror known as the Watsonville Riots? A variety of motives fed the anger and cruelty of those mobs, yet it seems starkly clear in retrospect that, of all the aroused emotions—fear, revulsion, indignation, jealousy, and rage—what connected them and supplied the energy that burst the bonds of civility was an explosive mixture of racism and sex.
The young Filipino lettuce pickers had few women among them. They admired American girls and the feeling was reciprocated. In conservative rural areas, however, racial mixing was not only frowned upon, it was shocking, and miscegenation (interracial marriage) was illegal.1 Love and youthful urges cannot easily be denied, however. In the years leading up to the January riots of 1930, a series of short, violent rampages occurred in the agricultural areas of California, triggered by the fraternization of the “little brown brothers” with white girls. Bitter rivalry over labor added to the resentment of white males who saw their supremacy under challenge.
The Tension Mounts
The first of these rampages blew up out of a pool hall “scrap” in Stockton on New Year’s Eve in 1926, and sounded the first tocsin of “race war.”2 Two years later, American Legion vigilantes went on patrols in Dinuba after Filipinos tried to infiltrate the annual street dance. It was reported that “the fruit pickers insist on their rights to attend dances and escort white girls about the city.” 3 As a result of this disturbance, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson and Representative Richard Welch from the San Jose-Watsonville area favored exclusion of Filipino farm labor,4 a policy endorsed by the California State Federation of Labor’s Paul Scharrenberg.5
On 24 October 1929, the day of the Wall Street Crash, Filipinos were shot with rubber bands as they escorted white girls at a street carnival in Exeter, southeast of Fresno. A fight broke out, a white man was stabbed, and a riot ensued in which vigilante whites, led by Chief of Police C. E. Joyner, beat and stoned Filipinos in the fields. The Exeter Sun accused Filipinos of a “penchant for violence,” while the Stockton Record deplored their “insistence. . .that they be treated as equals by white girls.”6 Commenting on this violence, the Salinas Index-Journal saw labor rivalry as the key element. White men could not and would not do the work—stoop labor—which the Filipino would do for less money. The “living standards,” even of a white day laborer, were “more exacting than those of a Latin, Oriental, or African laborer.” There was an ominous suggestion that the rioting would spread elsewhere in the state.7
Three months later this prophecy was fulfilled in the Watsonville riots that culminated in the murder of Fermin Tobera. Early on the morning of 2 December 1929, police raided the room of Perfecto Bandalan, 25, and found in the darkness two scantily attired white girls, Bertha and Esther Schmick, ages ten and sixteen. To a shocked public it was announced in court that the father of the girls had wanted to sell Esther to Bandalan for $500.8 Subsequently he charged that his wife had urged the deal so that she could “live on easy street.”9 In the period prior to the riots this case was a constant topic in the local papers.
With memories of the Exeter Riot fresh in everyone’s mind, a photo of Perfecto embracing Esther was splashed on the front page of the Watsonville Evening Pajaronian.10 Simultaneously, it was announced that a taxi-dance hall would soon open in Palm Beach, seven miles southwest of Watsonville. De Witt believes the conjuncture of these inflaming pieces of news was the spark that set off the future conflagration,11 and while I do not agree with that assessment, it certainly charged the atmosphere.
Between 8 December and 10 January, a series of Filipino run-ins with the law were reported in the local press, including violent brawls over women, hit and run driving, and sexual assault; in addition, the Schmick case continued to attract attention. In themselves these articles were trivial, but taken cumulatively they were added provocations.
The Pajaronian printed Judge Rohrbach’s resolution on 10 January which included, in addition to those cited previously, the following remarks:
In another interview he stated: “The worst part of his being here is [the Filipino’s] 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.”13
The next day, Saturday, the Palm Beach taxi-dance hall opened. White youths who were turned away promptly cut off the power.14 During the ensuing week, Senator Hiram Johnson offered a Filipino exclusion bill to the U.S. Senate, again using the word “menace,”15 followed by Representative Welch’s similar bill in the House,16 and Greenfield’s Chamber of Commerce joined with Rohrbach in calling for a ban on Filipino labor.17
On Saturday the 18th, the Pajaronian headline read “STATE ORGANIZATIONS WILL FIGHT FILIPINO INFLUX INTO COUNTRY.” In the psychology of a riot, one must consider the element of moral legitimacy; in this case it seems clear that the signals being sent by responsible persons to the public, whether from judges, publishers, or state officials, pointed to the Filipino as a target for justifiable action.
The same day, 10,000 copies of a circular called The Torch flooded the streets of Watsonville. Printed in Salinas, and written by David P. De Tagle, a Filipino editor from Stockton, The Torch was a bold, inflammatory reply to Judge Rohrbach which justified Filipinos’ seduction of white girls as “the Law of Nature,” contrasted thrifty Filipino workers with white beggars, and complained that a judge “suffering from Filipinomania” like Rohrbach could never be fair to a Filipino.18 The Pajaronian pointed out, “It bristles with an aggressiveness that apparently says : ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”19 Here was all the provocation needed to hurl angry young men upon each other: The Torch provided the match that touched off the Watsonville Riots.
Orgy of Rage
That same night, a Saturday, a mob of white youths seeking to break up the taxi-dance was stopped by a chain and armed guards barring the road leading to the Palm Beach dance hall. The next afternoon, the 19th, inflamed by an article disclosing the presence of nine white girls living at the club, they returned and again were repulsed; but in the evening a fight broke out between Filipinos and Chinese at a gambling den, followed by fights and rock-throwing with whites in downtown Watsonville.20
On Monday a Filipino mob gathered and confronted a white mob of equal size near the Pajaro River bridge. The tension increased as a group of twenty-five Mexicans appeared around a corner. After a period of indecision, as each side wondered what the Mexicans would do, the new arrivals began to saunter over as individuals and take up positions next to the whites, drawing out long knives and quietly, yet pointedly, began to pare their fingernails.21 The Filipinos took the point and dispersed. For the two remaining days of the riots, the Filipinos offered no resistance.
Whites then formed “hunting parties” of twenty-five to one hundred men after an “indignation meeting” at a local pool hall, but lacking leadership, they were easily broken up by the police, who made an earnest effort throughout the riots to keep control, although clearly outmanned. Early on the morning of the 21st, shots were fired into a bunkhouse on the McGowan ranch occupied by six Japanese who escaped unscathed. A car full of whites looking for Filipinos was blamed.22
Tuesday a mob charged the dance hall, where a Filipino protest meeting had been called, and was repulsed with buckshot by the Locke-Paddon brothers, San Francisco owners of the taxi-dance hall, and by police using tear gas grenades. Two of the attackers were wounded. Police escorted the Filipinos to their homes. “Hundreds of spectators, including many women, crowded the highway at a safe distance to watch the fray. Headlights flashed in every direction, and the effect was dazzling.”23
On Wednesday, 22 January, the riot reached its peak with mobs of hundreds dragging Filipinos out of their homes, whipping and beating them, and throwing them off the Pajaro River bridge. The mobs ranged up the San Juan road, attacking Fillipinos at the Storm and Detlefsen ranches; a Chinese apple-dryer that employed Filipinos was demolished, and volleys of shots were reportedly fired into a Filipino home on Ford Street. At Riberal’s labor camp, twenty-two Filipinos were dragged out and beaten. This time the mob had leaders and organization—it moved “military-like” and responded to orders to attack or withdraw. The police in Watsonville, led by Sheriff Nick Sinnott, rounded up as many Filipinos as they could rescue and guarded them in the City Council’s chamber.24 Monterey County Sheriff Carl Abbott tried to hold the Pajaro side of the river.
Early the next morning (the 23rd) bullets were fired into a bunkhouse on the Murphy ranch on the San Juan Road. Eleven Filipinos huddled in a closet to escape the fusillade. At dawn they discovered that a twelfth, Fermin Tobera, had been shot through the heart.
As Tobera was laid out at Mehl Undertakers, D.W. Rohrbach deplored the murder, but maintained his stand that the Filipinos were “only ten years removed from savagery and should be kept out of the valley.” Sheriff Sinnott arrested seven whites for the murder, one of whom had left his shoe at the scene of the crime. They were not unemployed “roughs” or “lettuce tramps”; several were the sons of respected members of the community. All charges were eventually dropped; the fact that the presiding judge, Rohrbach, had received a threat, or that prominent Filipino leaders, anxious to placate the white community, pleaded for leniency may or may not have influenced the court’s decision.
The American Legion was deputized and went out on patrol, but the fact that someone had been killed shocked people back to their senses. The Watsonville Riots were all about violence, but of a sort that was meant to be nonlethal. Stabbings and slashings and fistfights were often in the news, but murder was relatively rare. The one fatality appeared to have come from a random shot.
The violence spread to San Jose and San Francisco, where Filipinos were beaten on the street. A Filipino club was blown up in Stockton, and the blast was promptly blamed on the Filipinos themselves. In Gilroy, masked men warned a Japanese farmer to discharge his Filipinos, and fifty unemployed whites and Filipinos were hustled out of town by police to preempt possible fighting.
There were protests from the Philippines; the Resident Commissioner spoke before Congress. The body of Fermin Tobera, now a martyr, was sent back to Manila, where it lay in state in the capitol. He had become a symbol for the independence movement of his country.
Many Filipinos fled the country, but most remained and responded to the challenge in a characteristically tough, resilient manner. Seven months later, they conducted a successful strike in the Salinas lettuce fields.25
While many whites also hardened their stance, young white girls still fell in love with their ardent “little brown brothers,” causing the occasional scandal: Dorcia Wilson (15) eloped on 21 March, and Velma Espinosa (15), “a mere slip of a child with golden brown curls falling to her shoulders, and blue eyes filled with tears,” was dragged into Salinas court on 1 July for marrying Rufo Canete.26
For a time during the riots, “pretty Carrie Victorini” (15) was rumored to be held by Filipinos, but she had merely run away from home.27
The five days of the Watsonville riots, throwing two counties into turmoil and spreading fear and hatred throughout the state, had a profound impact on California’s attitude toward imported Asian labor. As a result, Filipino immigration plummeted, and while they remained a significant part of the labor in the fields, they began to be replaced by Mexicans.
We may never know what impact the Mexicans’ dramatic action at the 20 January bridge confrontation may have had. Only the Santa Cruz News reported the incident, though it may be assumed that such an event would have been given wide notoriety in agricultural areas. Nevertheless, if there ever was a moment when attitudes and allegiances appeared to shift, even symbolically, that was such a moment. We live today with the consequences of those events. The Filipino experience in the Thirties should give us a perspective on current issues surrounding Proposition 187. It would seem that in replacing the Filipinos in the fields, the Mexican migrant workers have also inherited the role of economic and social scapegoat whenever times are bad. It also teaches us something about the fragility of “civilization” and the roots of the maddening prejudice that continues to haunt the American nation.
1 Salinas Index-Journal, 1 July 1930, 1; by the staff, researched by Henry Empero, “Anti-Miscegenation Laws and the Filipino,” Letters in Exile, an Introductory Reader on the History of the Filipinos in America (Los Angeles, UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1976), 65.
Meynell wrote this article while a history student at San Jose State University.Quote this article on your site