John Steinbeck on Filipino labor | Inquirer Opinion
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John Steinbeck on Filipino labor

The first time we visited Monterey, California, we spent the better part of the day at an aquarium then drove off toward Los Angeles. On my recent visit I skipped the aquarium and decided to walk around a town associated with John Steinbeck. In high school we read “Of Mice and Men” and “The Pearl.” We heard of “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” because they were made into films. “Cannery Row” did not ring a bell, so when I walked through an area that was the lifeblood of Monterey in the past, I did not think it relevant until I saw a row of buildings where salmon and sardines were packed into the iconic one-pound cans. Farther down close to the aquarium is a row of bunkhouses where the foreign laborers in the canning factories lived.

For a decade starting with World War I, the cheap labor came from Spain. Most of them were young men from Malaga who made a stopover in Hawaii before settling in California. Those who didn’t care for the wet work in the stinking cannery made their way to the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. By the 1930s most of the fishermen were coming from Sicily; there were Japanese fishermen and workers, too, who ended up in internment camps during World War II.


What made all this history relevant to me was the fact that Filipinos were also in Cannery Row, arriving in California in large numbers after the 1924 Immigration Act excluded the Japanese. By 1930 there were about 35,000 young, single, Filipino men from Luzon working at all sorts of odd and low-paying jobs in California.

What I discovered in Monterey was that one of Steinbeck’s first published stories, “Fingers of Cloud” (1924), was about an 18-year-old retarded girl who married a Filipino worker who mistreated her until she discovered his “blackness” both in a literal and figurative sense. I could not find the story online and will have to dig it up in the library next week when school opens. What I did find was more interesting.


In 1936 the San Francisco News asked Steinbeck to write a series of articles on migrant labor in California. The result was a seven-part essay, later titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” that made public the oppressive conditions in which foreigners worked. Steinbeck did not mince his words in the essays that inspired his novel “Grapes of Wrath.”

He traced the evolution of laborers from the original Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Filipinos who were later replaced by whites from the states of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas and Kansas. The Oct. 10, 1936, part of the series said this of Filipinos:

“The last great source of foreign labor to be furnished the California grower has been the Filipino. Between 1920 and 1929, 31,000 of these little brown men were brought to the United States, and most of them remained in California, a new group of peon workers. They were predominantly young, male and single. Their women were not brought with them.

“The greatest number of them found agricultural employment in Central and Northern California. Their wages are the lowest paid to any migratory labor. As in the case of the Mexicans, Japanese and Chinese, the Filipinos have been subjected to racial discrimination. They are unique in California agriculture. Being young, male and single, they form themselves into natural groups of five, six, eight; they combine their resources in the purchase of equipment, such as autos. Their group life constitutes a lesson in economy. A labor coordinator of SRA (State Relief Administration) has said, ‘They often subsist for a week on a double handful of rice and a little bread.’

“These young men were not permitted to bring their women. At the same time the marriage laws of California were amended to include persons of the Malay race among those peoples who cannot intermarry with whites. Since they were young and male, the one outlet for their amorous energies lay in extralegal arrangements with white women. This not only gained for them a reputation for immorality, but was the direct cause of many race riots directed against them.

“They were good workers, but like the earlier immigrants they committed the unforgivable in trying to organize for their own protection. Their organization brought on them the usual terrorism. A fine example of this was the vigilante raid in the Salinas Valley last year when a bunk house was burned down and all the possessions of the Filipinos destroyed. In this case the owner of the bunk house collected indemnity for the loss of his property. Although the Filipinos have brought suit, no settlement has as yet been made for them.

“But the Filipino is not long to be a factor in California agriculture. With the establishment of the Philippine Islands as an autonomous nation, the 35,000 Filipinos in California have suddenly become aliens. The Federal Government, in cooperation with the Philippine government, has started a campaign to repatriate all of the Filipinos in California. It is only a question of time before this is accomplished.”


It is not only John Steinbeck’s references to Filipinos that should be in our school reading list. We should also go beyond Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to see a dark side of Mark Twain when he tried to maintain his trademark humor when writing about the Philippine-American War and railing against US imperialism and the conquest of the Philippines.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “Cannery Row”, “East of Eden”, “Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “The Pearl”, 1924 Immigration Act, California, cannery, cheap labor, Filipino labor, hawaii, John Steinbeck, Los Angeles, Malaga, Monterey, Santa Clara Valley, Spain, world war I
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