[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!
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.