Finding My Roots in the Fields of Northern California

October 12, 2022 7:35 AM
by Chris Aguillon

Every year growing up, my family prepared for one of the great American traditions: the summer road trip. Our destination was the same each year – Santa Cruz, California. The drive became so routine my brothers and I knew we were getting close when we reached the “Villes”, Castroville and Watsonville. This one particular year, we joked about a sign spanning the center of town:

The Artichoke Center of the World

“The Artichoke Center of the World?” I quipped. “Why would you brag about being the artichoke center of the world?” my brother added. “Look, they even have an artichoke festival!” my other brother remarked. The three of us burst out laughing. After the laughs subsided, a sharp, noticeably annoyed voice resonated from the driver’s seat. “You guys think it’s funny, but a lot of people make their livelihood off those artichokes,” I caught my dad’s eyes glaring at me from the rear-view mirror. “Do you know how many people depend on artichokes to put a roof over their head and food on the table? YOU GUYS HAVE NO IDEA.”

My grandfather, Mariano “Mario” Jaramillo Aguillon (1905-2001), came to the U.S. in 1927 and was part of the wave of Filipino immigrants known as the “manong generation” (manong means older brother in Ilocano, a Filipino dialect). The manong generation comprised of mostly young, single males, who filled a gap for cheap agricultural labor in the U.S. Prior to their arrival, cheap farm labor was provided in part by Japanese immigrants, whose numbers fell as Japanese were being excluded from the U.S. following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. Although this Act largely targeted immigration from Asian countries, the Philippines was a U.S. colony at the time, so Filipinos were considered “nationals” and were therefore exempt. In turn, thousands of Filipinos, including my grandfather, immigrated to the U.S. and began working primarily in agricultural fields located throughout Hawaii, California, and Washington.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Filipino farmworkers were used as scapegoats for the lack of jobs. They were targeted in racist attacks such as the Watsonville Riots, which resulted in the death of a 21-year-old Filipino man named Fermin Tobera, on January 22, 1930. As anti-Filipino sentiment grew, so did pressure on the U.S. government to stop the flow of Filipino immigrants. This led to the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, which would grant independence to the Philippines after a ten-year transition period but would also end Filipinos’ status as U.S. nationals. As a result, the Philippines would have the same immigration restrictions as other Asian countries under the 1924 Immigration Act and Filipinos already residing in the U.S. were now considered aliens ineligible for citizenship.

In December 1941, following Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, Filipinos in the U.S. petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow them to fight in World War II. This petition was swiftly granted and in 1942, my grandfather along with thousands of other Filipino men, joined the U.S. Army. They formed the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment and on February 20, 1943, many of the men were sworn in as U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Camp Beale. In April 1944, the regiment deployed to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater and fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. During this deployment, my grandfather met my grandmother, Cristina Ariola Brackett, while she was working at her family’s small fruit stand set up in front of her house in Catarman, Samar in 1945. After the war ended, they both returned to California and worked as agricultural laborers in the Brussels sprout, strawberry, and cherry fields in Northern California until around 1960.

As young children, my dad, aunts, and uncle also spent time in the fields either laboring or waiting for my grandparents as they worked. As I got older, I would hear stories about the difficulties they faced working in the fields – physically demanding work for long hours with little pay, no childcare, no sick leave, no vacation, etc. My grandmother told me about a time when my grandfather brought home some goat skin he scavenged from one of the farm labor camps. My family didn’t have anything else to eat so she boiled it until it got soft, mixed it with some portobello mushrooms she found in a field behind where they lived, and that’s what they ate for one week. “We didn’t have much, but we survived,” she said. She also told me it took 10 years working in the fields for them to save $1,000 and that’s what they used for a down payment on their first house.

Looking back at that summer road trip as a kid, my dad was absolutely right when he told me I had no idea. Decades later, I am thankful I do now. Today, October is recognized as Filipino American History Month in honor of the arrival of the first documented Filipinos in the United States in Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587. Filipino Americans represent the second-largest Asian American group in the nation and the third-largest ethnic group in California. In Santa Monica, Filipino staff serve in almost every department of the City and are committed to providing high-quality services to Santa Monica residents, businesses, and visitors. Click here to hear from Filipino American staff at the City of Santa Monica.

In honor of Filipino American History Month, the City’s Main Library will be displaying posters of Filipina/o locals and visitors at all branches with media wall access will be able to view the Santa Monica Public Library’s collection about notable Filipino Americans. City Hall will also be illuminated in blue, yellow, red, and white, the colors of the Philippines flag, from October 17 through October 30, 2022.

Pictured Below
Left: Mariano “Mario” Jaramillo Aguillon (grandfather), U.S. Army, 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment.
Right: Cristina Ariola Brackett with daughter Christine, harvesting strawberries in Soquel, California circa 1951.

Authored By

Chris Aguillon
CIP Project Manager, Public Works Department - Water Resources Division


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