Written by Joaquin Labio
On January 23rd, 1930, a bullet pierced the heart of Fermin Tobera1. His hands – ones that endlessly labored over Watsonville’s sun-kissed fields – lay limp. Tobera was only twenty-two years old.
His killers: eight white men who believed that “dirty brown monkeys”2 like Tobera were stealing their women.
As displayed in a Los Angeles Times article dated February 19303, the Watsonville riots was part of series of events that demonstrated white America’s hate towards the Filipinx community. This was happening alongside the rise of the eugenics movement – the belief that the children of two white parents were “naturally better”4. As a result, the concept of white supremacy dominated the interactions of Filipino men with white women.
These relationships are deeply connected to the Philippines’ history as a United States colony. After the United States seized the Philippines in 1898, all Filipinxs became United States “nationals”5. This meant anyone from the Philippines could migrate to the United States without restrictions. Filipino men saw this as an opportunity to earn money6. On the other hand, the United States used Filipino immigrants to fulfill the need for “single able-bodied men…[who] perform rough, physically excruciating labor”7. In turn, Filipino men worked as “farm workers…cannery workers…and low-wage service workers”8. From the very beginning, Filipino men were at the mercy of white America’s whim.
By the 1930s, there were “approximately…70000 Filipinos in the United States, of which…50% are in California”9. Most Filipino immigrants were unaccompanied, single men aged 15-3010. In contrast, there were virtually no Filipina women – “perhaps five or ten…to each thousand men”11. As a result, Filipino men could not marry and start a family; they were “designated to be a dying race”12, used only as cheap labor by white America.
However, there was once place where Filipino men could interact with women: taxi dance halls. For ten cents, white female workers would briefly dance with their customers – who were, in fact, predominantly Filipino men13.
Filipino men frequented taxi-dance halls for a number of reasons. Because America colonized the Philippines, Filipinxs have been conditioned to believe that white people are superior – “blonde hair served a powerful symbol of white racial purity”14. As a result, Filipino men feel better about themselves when they gain the affection of a white woman. Filipino men also view dancing as a physical release – a means of regaining control over their bodies after a long day of repetitive labor15.
In return, white dancers enjoy the company of Filipino men, praising them as as “perfectly gentlemanly”16, “splendid dancers”17, and “passionate lovers” 18. White America believed working-class, taxi dancehall workers were “white trash ”19. Yet, the attention these white dancers received from Filipino men “countered” their status as “less worthy women”19.
Ultimately, the taxi dance hall bond between the Filipino male and working class, white female was one between two oppressed members of society. Their shared experiences created the conditions for sexual and romantic relationships – ones that occurred in “larger proportion[s]…than any other racial minority”20. In fact, there are at least 1800 intermarriages between Filipino males and white females in the 1930s – with thousands more left undocumented21.
However, white men violently opposed this development. They viewed the “threat of intermarriage to be the most immediate concern”22, even the “problem of the decade”23 – the primary motivation behind hatred against Filipinxs.
There are a variety of reasons for this reaction. For one, white America was very critical of “pre-modern public health conditions”24 and “lack of civilized hygienic practices”25 in the Philippines. Consequently, they felt that these “lonely islanders”26 would spread “tropical diseases”27 among the white population. Similarly, white America also believed that half-white, half-Filipinx children were naturally inferior to their pure-white counterparts. They thought that mixed-race children “inherited the worst traits of both parents”28 – thus damaging the so-called purity of the white race.
These assumptions are grounded on the belief that whiteness reigns supreme over all other races. In essence, anti-Filipinx riots – like the 1930 Watsonville riots – serve as a means to protect white superiority.
Ironically, this concept of white supremacy is rooted in feelings of insecurity. White men firmly believed white women were exclusive to them; they were not used to “competing with other groups for the affections of white women”28. Black and Latino men usually pursued women of their own race; yet, the Filipino male’s unique demographic position – the absence of Filipina women to interact with– makes him a threat. In addition, the white man is also insecure of his position in job market. Because Filipinos are willing to work for lower wages, factories and agricultural companies are more likely hire them over white males29.
Ultimately, the presence of the Filipino male threatens the two main aspects of white manhood – the ability to get girls, and the ability to earn money. Consequently, white men engage in anti-Filipino riots – such as the 1930 Watsonville riots – not only as a means of safeguarding “white purity”, but also to reassert their masculinity.
Eventually, all these desires came to a singular climax: the passing of the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act30. By declaring the Philippines “independent”, all Filipinxs in America became non–citizens. In addition, Filipino immigration was limited to fifty people a year. This formally marks the exclusion of the Filipinx community from mainstream American society.
Throughout this narrative, the Filipino male is at the mercy of white America. From the colonized past of his home country, to his labor on foreign soil, to his interactions with white women, the Filipino male’s actions are simultaneously constructed and punished by white supremacy.
This was the fate of Fermin Tobera, whose body no longer frolics in taxi dance halls, nor walks in Watsonville’s farm fields.
This is the fate of a “dirty little monkey”.
1 “Taxi dance girls start Filipinos on wrong foot.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 30. Accessed March 22, 2017.
4 Baldoz, Rick. ““Get Rid of All Filipinos or We’ll Burn This Town Down”: Racial Revanchism and the Contested Color Line in the Interwar West.” In The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898-1946, 113-55. NYU Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qgdkc.8.
5 Burma, John H. ““The Background of the Current Situation of Filipino-Americans.”: Social Forces 30, no. 1 (1951): 42-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2571739
7 Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. ““White Trash” Meets the “Little Brown Monkeys”: The Taxi Dance Hall as a Site of Interracial and Gender Alliances between White Working Class Women and Filipino Immigrant Men in the 1920s and 30s.” Amerasia Journal 24, no. 2 (1998): 115-34. doi:10.17953/amer.24.2.760h5w08630ql643.
9 “Taxi dance girls start Filipinos on wrong foot.”
12 Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. ““White Trash” Meets the “Little Brown Monkeys”.
13 “Taxi dance girls start Filipinos on wrong foot.”
14 Baldoz, Rick. ““Get Rid of All Filipinos or We’ll Burn This Town Down”
15 Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. ““White Trash” Meets the “Little Brown Monkeys”.
17 San Pablo Burns, Lucy Mae. “Splendid Dancing”: Filipino “Exceptionalism” in Taxi Dancehalls.” Dance Research Journal 40, no. 2 (2008): 23-40
19 Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. ““White Trash” Meets the “Little Brown Monkeys”.
23 San Pablo Burns, Lucy Mae. “Splendid Dancing”.
24 Baldoz, Rick. ““Get Rid of All Filipinos or We’ll Burn This Town Down”: