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‘A Duty to Fight’ : Labor: Nearly 30 years ago, Philip Vera Cruz helped start what became the UFW. His struggle represents a forgotten chapter in the history of Filipino farm workers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like so many times before, Philip Vera Cruz, a 60-year-old Filipino farm worker, was picking grapes one hot, late-summer afternoon in the San Joaquin Valley.

But this day in September, 1965, was to be like no other. As Vera Cruz stooped and plucked the ripe fruit to a monotonous beat, another man ran up to report that seven miles away, Filipino migrants were sitting down in the grape fields of Delano and vowing not to work again until they got a raise.

“That’s when I stopped picking grapes for the first time in over 20 years,” Vera Cruz recalls. “And I never went back.”

He did not know then that the Delano grape strike launched by Filipino migrants would be the first shot in a bitter five-year war between migrant workers and California’s agricultural industry. Nor did he know that it would eventually lead to the formation of the United Farm Workers and change the face of American labor.

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These days, Vera Cruz, who became the highest-ranking Filipino in the UFW, spends his time growing grapes in the back yard of his home here. Until recently, the 87-year-old labor leader had been largely forgotten. But he represents a vital link to the past as one of the last living members of the manong: single Filipino men who came to America in the early 1900s to work in the fields, factories and canneries up and down the West Coast.

“Philip is truly a pioneer,” says Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center and president of the AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. “He has struggled all his life . . . and has been incredibly courageous in pursuing what he thought was right. His story, like a whole generation of the manong, is a lost chapter in Filipino history and California labor history.”

Although academics and unionists are now rushing to recognize Vera Cruz and the lost history of his generation, he remains a quiet, deeply modest man still committed to fighting racism and injustice.

“I’m an old-timer,” he declares matter-of-factly, sitting at a plywood kitchen table. “Very few of us persisted to get that kind of recognition. That doesn’t make me different from the others. That doesn’t make me an intellectual or all that bull.

“I took it as a duty to fight for the union,” he continues. “I was just doing what I had to do. The union helps the workers, and I’m one of them. I wanted to give my fair share.”

Vera Cruz is dressed in a well-worn, button-down white shirt, his pockets stuffed with pens and reading glasses as if he’s about to head into a union meeting. Strands of thick gray hair hang gracefully on his forehead, over the deep grooves that age and sun have left on his face.

“The principle of justice is just a theory,” he says carefully. “It’s very beautiful. So we try to get close to it. We’ll never get there. You can’t. All those years, I was fighting for equality and justice, but I never got there. I still want to get close to it. And bring my people closer to it.”

Twenty-two-year-old Philip Villamin Vera Cruz left the Philippines in 1926, dreaming of going to college and becoming a lawyer. He wound up cutting boards at a box factory in Cosmopolis, Wash.

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Laid off that same winter, the migrant worker began a lifetime of travels: busing tables at a Chicago restaurant, canning fish in Alaska, hoeing beets in North Dakota, picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley.

By 1931, Vera Cruz had enrolled at Gonzaga University in Spokane. But the $2.50 a week he earned as a houseboy wasn’t enough to support his family back home. So he dropped out and went back to working in restaurants full-time.

“It took me my whole life to bring literacy to my family,” he says proudly. “My parents never went to school. (But) my brother and sister and all my brother’s six kids went to college.”

Then, he turns subdued: “I never even got married. If I had my own family here, how could I support my family back home?”

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In the spring of 1943, after a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Vera Cruz came to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.

For farmers in California, the Filipinos may have seemed the ideal “stoop labor.” They were young, single men who, because of restrictive immigration laws against Asians, could not bring their families here and could be housed in labor camps. And they were cheap.

The growers had a popular saying, Vera Cruz recalls: that Filipinos made good farm workers because they were built close to the ground.

“I’m a short Filipino,” Vera Cruz says bluntly in his newly published personal memoir, “but it was just as hard for me to bend over as a big white guy.”

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For Filipino farm workers, life in Delano, about 25 miles north of Bakersfield, was no immigrants’ dream. The staples of life were labor camps with toilets and kitchens out back, violent attacks by white vigilantes, anti-miscegenation laws and a tight community of old-timers that Vera Cruz poignantly describes as “an entire generation forced by society to find love and companionship in dance halls.”

Delano’s Chinatown was one of the few areas of town where the manong could hang out: “They would just stand there, watching the passersby, looking to the north end of the buzzing sidewalk, then turning to the south to see what was happening. . . . We must have looked like brown owls, you know, sitting there and occasionally turning our heads from one side to the other to check if the entire flock along the block was still at peace.”

By 1965, Filipino migrants, who had spent their entire lives on the margins of American society, decided they had had enough.

Vera Cruz was still picking grapes when his union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, struck the Coachella vineyards, 100 miles north of the Mexican border. Led by Filipinos trained in the labor struggles of the 1930s, the AWOC won major gains in wages and working conditions.

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When grape season ended in Coachella, the farm workers migrated north to the vineyards in Delano, where their fight to raise wages to Coachella standards launched the five-year strike that became the watershed event of the farm-worker movement.

On the evening of Sept. 7, 1965, more than 1,000 rank-and-file members of AWOC, most of them Filipinos, voted to strike. A week later, nearly 5,000 members of the predominantly Mexican National Farm Workers Assn., under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, voted to join them. In August, 1966, the AWOC and the NFWA merged, and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee was born.

“The Filipinos were the ones who pushed (the union) into the strike,” says Chicano studies Prof. Rodolfo Acuna of Cal State Northridge. “They were the more militant ones. They were later eclipsed by the largeness of the Mexican labor force. But you really have to give them credit.”

Eliseo Medina, a Mexican-American, was 19 years old and picking grapes in Delano in 1965 when Vera Cruz came to talk to him about the strike. Medina, a UFW board member until 1978, remembers Vera Cruz as “someone who had fire in his heart.”

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“He had a real deep concern for people and real anger at the way people were mistreated,” adds Medina, now an organizer for Service Employees International Union in San Diego.

Glenn Omatsu, a staff member at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, notes that although Vera Cruz has always been concerned about Filipinos, “he saw his role as not just advocating for the goals of Filipinos, but for all working people.”

In the end, perhaps, Vera Cruz’s resistance to being an advocate just for Filipino old-timers may have caused him the greatest unhappiness.

“My biggest shortcoming as a union officer was not fighting like hell for what I knew was right,” Vera Cruz notes in his memoir. “I always sacrificed my personal convictions for what I thought was the good of the union, and sometimes I think this was a mistake.”

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“Cesar didn’t give credit to the Filipinos, even in the beginning,” he explains in an interview. “Do you think we did anything? We were the first ones to sit down in the fields. That sure enough is the proof.”

But, he insists, the problem was the nature of UFW leadership itself, not Filipinos versus Mexicans: “The way I see it, you’ve got to train young people to replace the old ones. That’s not the way they saw it.”

The union leadership wanted young people to contribute, he says: “But if they ask so much questions, they say, ‘We run the union.’

“Leadership is incidental to the movement,” he argues. “You don’t have a (Martin Luther) King if you don’t have years of oppression of black people. You don’t have a Gandhi if the British Empire was fair in ruling India.”

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Late in his career as a UFW vice president, Vera Cruz became critical of what he perceived to be the union’s lack of democracy. He was aggrieved by UFW neglect of Filipino old-timers, most of whom had retired by the 1970s.

With a hint of bitterness, Vera Cruz talks about the UFW’s move in the late 1970s from Forty Acres in Delano to Keene, in the mountains above Bakersfield. All that was left at Forty Acres, he says, were the Filipino old-timers in the union’s deteriorating retirement home, Agbayani Village.

Finally, in 1977, incensed by Chavez’s visit to the Philippines, where President Ferdinand E. Marcos had declared martial law, Vera Cruz resigned from the board.

“We in the union believed in the general principle of freedom,” he says. “Cesar’s trip to a dictatorship . . . was in direct contradiction to those principles we stood for.” Chavez declined to comment.

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Although 15 years have passed since Vera Cruz’s tenure with the UFW ended, unionists such as Kent Wong recall with admiration his unique brand of leadership.

“Philip is an exceptional leader,” Wong says. “He’s a humble, soft-spoken, sincere individual. Those are the qualities I’ve come to cherish and respect. They are rare among labor leaders--among leaders in general.”

Asian-American scholars say Vera Cruz’s life, a metaphor for the Asian immigrant experience, is a story that must be told.

And, little by little, it is.

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Vera Cruz’s memoir, a series of interviews by Berkeley-based writers Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva called “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement,” was published by UCLA earlier this summer. The Smithsonian Institution held a reception for Vera Cruz in May, and the Assn. of Asian American Studies and the AFL-CIO recently honored him.

To not recognize the veteran labor leader, younger Asian Americans say, would be an injustice to history.

“There’s such a big disconnection between the old-timers and young people, especially among recent immigrants,” says August Espiritu, 26, a doctoral student at UCLA.

Even his Asian-American friends don’t recognize the name Philip Vera Cruz, Espiritu says: “When I tell them about Philip, they are really surprised to hear that he was such an important figure.”

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Today, after a lifetime of back-breaking work, cutting asparagus and picking grapes for California agribusiness, Vera Cruz is occupied with his own garden.

Occasionally, he gets visitors. And from time to time, especially if invited by young people, he travels and speaks about his UFW days.

Mostly, he tends to his own grapes. Standing in the shade of his vines on a hot July afternoon, he fingers the red and green clusters gently, as if they were precious gems hanging from their boughs.

“I don’t think I got enough for myself,” he says, looking back on his decades in the fields. “I wasted a lot of time just trying to survive in America.”

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