Nine Ways that Pinoys Pushed Back: Filipino-American Action in the 20th Century

By Kara Nepomuceno

CAST/HIST 260: Asian American History, Fall 2017

Filipinos have been in North America since the 1700s, but remain invisible in most narratives of US history. The history of Filipino Americans provides many examples which subvert the model minority myth, and can inform today’s efforts to seek justice for other marginalized communities.

This list describes some of the ways that Filipino Americans have challenged oppression in the 20th century.

1. Telling their stories

Book cover of America is in the Heart. Photo credit: Amazon Books

Carlos Bulosan was a labor activist as well as writer, known for his book America is in the Heart: A Personal History. This book centered around the lives of migrant workers in the United States and commented on the sobering realities of the “American Dream”. Published in 1946, Bulosan’s work became became widely read by students and activists in the 1970s and 80s, and is now considered a foundational text in Asian-American literature.

Revealing both the broken promises and the possibilities of the “American Dream”, Bulosan’s work continues to affect understanding of immigrant American experience today. Most recently, a film produced by Frank Chi and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has featured Bulosan’s writing. Read by writer Junot Dìaz, activist Ivy Quicho, and comedian Hasan Minhaj, the film can be found here.

2. Denouncing racial violence

Newspaper headline in the Evening Pajaronian (1930). Photo credit:

During the Watsonville Riot of 1930, Filipinos were attacked by groups of white men, angered by the employment of white women in a Filipino social club. The hunts lasted five days, resulting in the death of Filipino Fermin Tobera. Pablo Manlapit, a well-known labor leader, arrived in Watsonville and published special issues of the newspaper Ang-Bantay, protesting racial violence and demanding that the white perpetrators be charged. Local authorities used Manlapit’s presence to turn attention away from recognizing and addressing the violence committed by white hunting parties, none of whom were charged, and shift public unease towards Manlapit, the “outsider” who arrived to stir up trouble.

3. Building communities

The Caballeros de Dimas Alang (1930). Photo credit:

The Caballeros de Dimas Alang were one of many organizations in the 1930s providing food, clothing, financial support, and social events for Filipino-American communities across the west. Through their support, laborers threatened with deportation were able to remain in the US and advocate for citizenship. The group was first established in Manila in 1906 to promote Filipino liberation from the United States. The first US branch was established in 1921, and later grew to accommodate 26 branches. Its roots were in masonic tradition, excluding non-Christian Filipinos from their vision of an independent nation. However, the organization became an important support network for many Filipino-American laborers.

4. Organizing labor— California

Filipino laborers in Salinas Valley. Photo credit: Philippines Report

The Filipino Labor Union (FLU) was founded in 1933 during the Salinas Valley Strike, in which 700 workers in the lettuce-picking industry organized for better working conditions. While the Salinas Valley Strike was broken by vigilante mobs, merchant pressure, and law enforcement, the formation of the FLU set the stage for future success in labor rights. The FLU is known as the first successful Filipino labor organization, consisting of 2000 members by 1934.

5. Organizing labor— Alaska

The Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union on Labor Day (1939). Photo credit: University of Washington

The Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union (CWFLU) was formed by Northwest Filipino salmon cannery workers in 1933. It later joined the American Federation of Labor and challenged contractor power, organized for shorter hours, and encouraged Filipinos to acquire skills for upward mobility. It also organized social welfare programs and worked with the larger Filipino-American community in the Northwest, paying for meals for members of community and providing support for Filipino-American newspapers. Interethnic solidarity remained a challenge at this time, and while it was “never able to break the power of Chinese and Japanese contractors” it nevertheless improved working conditions for many “Alaskeros”.

6. Challenging unjust laws

Poster denouncing the McCarran Act as “Today’s McCarthyism”. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The McCarran Act, also known as the International Security Act of 1950, was established to target “alien subversion” and “espionage” in the United States. It expanded powers of the Department of Justice to punish violations of immigration law as old as thirty years and detain any “alien” suspected of subversive activity. Ernesto Mangaoang was detained without warrant at 3am, under the McCarran act. His detainment used unnecessary force and the grounds for his deportation were shaky — while he was a former member of the Communist party, he had lived in the US over twenty years. After taking his case to court, the grounds for his deportation were dismissed.

7. Running for office

Former Rep. Thelma Bucholdt (2007). Photo Credit: Asian Journal USA

In 1974, Thelma Bucholdt was elected to the House of Representatives. She became the first Filipina to hold statewide office on the mainland and served four consecutive terms, providing much needed representation for Filipino-American constituents in Alaska. The Alaskan canning industry brought many Filipino-Americans to the state beginning in the 1930s. Bucholdt researched and published this history in her book Filipinos in Alaska, 1788–1958. Published in 1996, it has been cited in other histories of Filipino labor, ethnic community formation, and Native-American relations.

8. Fighting eviction

Officers stand in front of the I-Hotel after eviction (1977). Photo credit: Jesse Drew

The I-Hotel in Manilatown, San Francisco was the site of violent attempts to evict tenants in order to build parking lot. Most of these tenants were older, low-income residents, lacking the resources to move. Violeta “Bullet” Marasigan was a social worker at the Manilatown Information Center in San Francisco. In the wake of suspicious fires and the destruction of the hotel’s third floor, she helped organize volunteers for its rehabilitation. From the eviction notice in 1968, to the grand re-opening of the I-Hotel in 2005, the work spanned nearly forty years.

9. Demanding recognition

The SFSU Strike (1968). Photo credit: Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University

Student activists in the Third-World Liberation Front (TWLF) initiated the San Francisco State University Strike in 1968, to demand the formation of ethnic studies in higher education. While the strike did not exclusively consist of Filipino-American students, it is included here because it demonstrates that Filipino and Asian-American history is also the shared history of other marginalized groups, working for the right to be recognized, to have their histories and needs brought into spaces of higher education. The institutions and materials that have made this article possible would not exist without the formation of ethnic studies, a direct result of student organization.

Filipino-American history is also American history, inevitably bound to the challenges faced by other groups. Histories are powerful tools for self-interrogation —studying them is crucial to the difficult but necessary work of addressing violence and discrimination in today’s communities.

This list only scratches the surface of a complex and relevant history. It is intended as an entry point into understanding Asian-American history, and the ways formation of Asian-American identities is tied to the racialization of other groups.

Check out the titles below to learn more about the themes presented here.


Baldoz, Rick. The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898–1946. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Bucholdt, Thelma. Filipinos in Alaska, 1788–1958. Aboriginal Press, 1996.

de Vera, Arleen. “Without Parallel: The Local 7 Deportation Cases, 1949–1955.” Amerasia Journal 20, no. 2 (1994): 1–25.

DeWitt, Howard A. “The Filipino Labor Union: The Salinas Lettuce Strike of 1934.” Amerasia Journal 5, no. 2 (1978): 1–21.

Fujita Rony, Dorothy B. American Workers, Colonial Power: Philippine Seattle and the Transpacific West, 1919–1941. University of California Press, 2013.

Habal, Estella. San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Justia US Law. “Mangaoang v. Boyd, District Director, Immigration and Naturalization Service et al, 205 F.2d 553 (9th Cir. 1953).” Accessed December 16, 2017.

Lee, Shelley Sang-Hee. A New History of Asian America. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Ling, Huiping and Austin, W. Allan. Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Routes and Roots: Cultivating Filipino American History on the Central Coast. “Caballeros de Dimas Alang”. Accessed December 16, 2017.

San Juan Jr., E. “Carlos Bulosan, Filipino Writer-Activist: Between a Time of Terror and the Time of Revolution.” The New Centennial Review 8, no. 1 (2008): 103–134.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

— Kara Nepomuceno



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.