Philip Vera Cruz

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[A fantastic photograph of Philip Vera Cruz in later years, found on the great blog https://fromthevcvault.wordpress.com/tag/philip-vera-cruz/]

More often than not, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are the two people who are most prominently remembered to be associated with agricultural worker’s unionization efforts in the United States. And while they are important in the histories of agricultural labour unions in the United States, the story of the United Farm Workers (UFW) is much larger than them. Rarely if ever does the name Philip Vera Cruz get mentioned in popular histories of the United Farm Workers labour union (UFW) outside of one or two lines, except for perhaps in Asian-American history texts.

Born in 1904 in Saoang, Ilocos Sur, Philippines, Vera Cruz was a critical driving force in unionization efforts amongst a broad racial coalition of agricultural workers in mid-20th c California. At a young age he immigrated to the United States as part of the early wave of Filipinx migration from an American Empire-controlled Philippines, carrying the legacies of American colonial rule to the United States with him. Entering the United States through Seattle in 1926 and later moving to Chicago, Vera Cruz spent his early years in the USA working as a physical labourer and sending money back home to support his family in the Philippines. Following the Second World War, Vera Cruz left Chicago for Delano, California in order to work as an agricultural labourer.

Vera Cruz, along with many other Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans from his generation became involved in the growing agricultural labour movement after his move to Delano. In the 1950s Vera Cruz became the president of the Delano local of the National Farm Labor Union which represented mostly Filipinxs along with some Mexican and Mexican-American workers. At the same time that he was working in Delano as a farmworker, the demographics of the agricultural workforce were shifting as the Bracero Program (1942-1964) was bringing in thousands of Mexican men, many of whom returned to the USA on a regular basis after their contracts finished or stayed permanently in the USA as undocumented workers.

In 1959, the AFL-CIO organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and within three years César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and other agricultural workers created the National Farm Workers Association. The strike that would ultimately provide the catalyst for the nation-wide (and eventually even international) grape boycott and strike took place in September 1965, when the predominantly Filipinx and Filipinx-American workforce voted to strike against the exploitative grape growers in the broader Delano area. The Filipinx community in the United States “had a strong labor consciousness,” in Vera Cruz’s words, because they had been continuously exploited since arriving in the United States decades before, as it was extremely difficult to leave the United States for the Philippines due to geographic, immigration, and economic reasons. Even more, many had left the Philippines while it was under American imperial control and had therefore experienced American capitalist exploitation from even before their move to the USA.

Vera Cruz would go on to play a major role in organizing Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans through the UFW, which he helped found, all while attempting to balance the delicate and often difficult racial coalition that existed amongst Mexican, Filipinx, Arab, and Black American agricultural workers in the union. Ultimately, Vera Cruz left the UFW (which he served as second vice president at the time) in 1977 over intense ethical and political disagreements with how Chávez led the union, ignited especially in regards to the visit Chávez undertook to the Philippines where human rights abuses were state-sanctioned at the time. Despite leaving the UFW, Philip Vera Cruz continued to be a strong advocate for the labour rights of agricultural workers until his death in 1994.

Vera Cruz remains an important but often overlooked (at least outside of Asian-American academic circles) historical figure who can teach us a lot about the experiences of colonized peoples under American imperial control in Asia, the attempts of some of the most marginal people in capitalist economies – impoverished, racialized agricultural workers – to unionize, and the difficult yet necessary work that goes into creating racial coalitions and solidarities. The effect of Vera Cruz’s activism and life can be felt today in the United States, even if his name remains relatively unfamiliar to many outside of his community. We hear at the HHBlog tip our hats to Vera Cruz, and we hope you seek out more information about him and his radical work as a labour organizer!

~ M

Bibliography

Fujita Rony, Dorothy. “Coalitions, Race, and Labor: Rereading Philip Vera Cruz.”  Journal of Asian American Studies Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 2000): 139-162.

Lyons, Richard D. “Philip Vera Cruz, 89; Helped to Found  Farm Worker Union.” New York Times, June 16, 1994. Accessed June 9, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/16/obituaries/philip-vera-cruz-89-helped-to-found-farm-worker-union.html.

Scharlin, Craig, Lilia Villanueva, and Elaine H. Kim. Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Philip Vera Cruz

Anna May Wong

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[A black and white photograph of Anna May Wong looking glamorous as all hell circa 1935. Her gaze is focused somewhere behind her and to her right, creating the illusion of ignoring the camera and her onlookers. This photograph is in the public domain, and was found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait.jpg ]

Today’s post is dedicated to the talented and absolutely fabulous actress known as Anna May Wong. Born Wong Liu Tsong (Yellow Frosted Willow) in Los Angeles early in 1905 to Chinese-American parents who ran a laundry, Wong went on to become one of the only Asian-American actresses of the early to mid-twentieth century in American cinema (Hodges, 1). Beginning her career at a young age, first in silent film and moving into talkies, she worked in the film industry as a renowned actress until her untimely death in 1961.

Her films ranged from 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1943’s anti-Japanese propaganda film Bombs Over Burma, with her being cast in different “ethnic” roles ranging from Inuit to Mongolian throughout her career. As scholar Anthony B. Chan notes in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Wong’s varied roles were “designed to reveal an exotic, stern, and mysterious Asian being rather than a matter-of-fact person who relished the art of repartee. Her films served to create an aura of aloofness that seemed to encourage a sexual encounter but at the same time pushed aside the possibility of touching and intimacy” (Chan, 193).

Wong was constantly cast as the “ultimate cinematic tease” in Hollywood films (Chan, 193), as a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” in her early years, leading her to leave for Europe in search of more fulfilling roles that did not rely on her playing a supporting “exotic” character. By leaving the United States film industry for the industries flourishing in Europe, she was able to escape being constantly typecast as an exotic supporting role, which came out of a combination of anti-miscegenation laws that disallowed her from having on-screen romances with anyone who was not Asian and from Euro-American actresses constantly being cast in yellow-faced leading Asian roles. Eventually, she was signed on to Paramount in the 1930s and returned to the United States after starring in several European films of varying success. As her fame grew in the United States during the 1930s, she began to advocate on behalf of the Chinese-American community and new Chinese refugees during a time of extreme anti-Asian racism and hostility in the United States that had begun with the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and continued on throughout the next century.

Wong’s career spanned a breadth of roles, from stereotypical and offensive to witty and empowering, that constantly subverted Euro-American expectations of (East) Asian-American women. She was an “icon to the people of Chinese North America” who wrote tongue-in-cheek signatures on publicity photos destined for Euro-Americans, such as “Orientally yours” (Chan, xii;  Hodges, xvii). Anna May Wong’s life leads us to interrogate the ways that rebellion and subversion often co-exist with what, at times, appear to be the upholding of oppressive norms. Furthermore, Wong’s “exoticized” beauty forces us to grapple with the ways in which beauty is often weaponized against particular gendered and racialized historical subjects, leading to a forced simplification of an individual’s complexity and humanity. Wong’s sexualized appeal as a racialized subject of White fetishes regarding East Asian women is an essential aspect in understanding the complicated history of media portrayals of Asian women that reverberate into the present day.

We here at the HHBlog have the utmost respect for trail-blazing women like Anna May Wong and hope that in detailing a little bit of her life in all of its intricacies, we have inspired you to think critically about the way women living at the intersections of fetishized and sexualized racism resist, rebel, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga). “THE LONG MARCH: From Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood.” Cinéaste 21, no. 4 (1995): 38-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41687420.

Anna May Wong