Literature, Migration

Filipino migrants in America, according to John Steinbeck

Filipino farmworkers harvesting lettuce in Imperial Valley, California, circa 1937. From Corbis Images (

Filipino farmworkers harvesting lettuce in Imperial Valley, California, circa 1937. From Corbis Images (

With patience and industry, one can almost always find something noteworthy to buy and read in Booksale. This week, I found a copy of John Steinbeck‘s collection of articles for the San Francisco News in 1936. The articles became the basis of his seminal novel The Grapes of Wrath. Titled The Harvest Gypsies, the collection speaks of the suffering and harsh experiences of migrant workers in California during the height of the Great Depression.

Migrant Filipinos were discussed in some of the articles. According to Steinbeck,ย  Filipinos in California were some of the most discrminated against in America. In turn, they were also the most organized migrants. Because of their organizations, the Filipinos soon suffered brutal state reprisals. In the book, Steinbeck said that foreign labor in California at the time was on the wane. He was wrong, because decades later, Filipinos became among the largest ethnic groups in that country. Nevertheless, Steinbeck had such great appreciation and empathy for migrants. Declared by the New York University as one of 20th century’s greatest works of American journalism, the articles in The Harvest Gypsies are advocacy journalism at its heart-wrenching best.

Here is a part of the an article that discussed Filipinos in California during the Great Depression:

For P20 at Booksale

As in the case of the Mexicans, Japanese and Chinese, the Filipinos have been subjected to racial discrimination. They are unique in California agriculture. Being young, male and single, they form themselves into natural groups of five, six, eight: they combine their resources in the purchase of equipment, such as autos. Their group life constitues a lesson in economy.

A labor coordinator of SRA [The State Relief Administration] has said, “They often subsist for a week on a double handful of rice and a little bread.”

They were good workers, but like the earlier immigrants they committed the unforgivable in trying to organize for their own protection. Their organization brought on the the usual terrorism.

A fine example of this was the vigilante raid in the Salinas Valley last year when a bunk house was burned down and all the possessions of the Filipinos destroyed. In this case the owner of the bunk house collected indemnity for the loss of his property. Although the Filipinos brought suit, no settlement has as yet been made for them.


14 thoughts on “Filipino migrants in America, according to John Steinbeck

  1. krguda says:

    Karen, nabasa ko noong nasa college ako. Susubukan kong balikang basahin ang libro ngayon. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    MLV, haha. Mas mura iyan. Pero mas peligroso sa mata. Hehe.

  2. Pingback: Why don’t we know about the pioneering labor actions of Filipino farmworkers in California? « Reportage, etc.

  3. Liz says:

    I found this is very interesting because I am still trying to find historical accounts of the early lives of Filipinos in America. Being of Filipino descent myself, I find it worth while when articles are posted like this. Also, as a third generation Filipino American, and because my family does not really discuss the historical concept of the Filipino stuggle for identity in America, this article itself feeds my curiosity. Please keep me aware!

  4. I didn’t fing anything ground breaking about John Steinbeck’s comments. He just gave his observations. There were close to 30,000 pinoys working the Salainas Valley as well as subsequent areas in Castroville, Pajaro, Watsonville, Soledad, Greenfield and Gilroy. You would think that he would have observed even more and even bothered to document it in his writing, especially the the Salinas Packer Strikes of 1931 and 1931.

  5. This article proves that most of the Filipino people are industrious and unique, but sad to say that until now most of us remain workers at the foreign land, just to earn enough money to support our family. I wish that someday my/our children will contribute their skills and knowledge to the progress of our dear Mother Land and the foreign people may come to work with us. I hope it will happen. We should do something to overcome the discrimination of Filipinos abroad. Even though there are lots of Filipino professionals abroad, they are still Filipinos. It’s sad to say also that some professionals are ashamed of those Filipino who are just domestic workers.

    • “It’s sad to say that some professionals are ashamed of those Filipino who are just domestic workers.” I feel the same way. If it wasn’t for the earlier migrant farmworker Pinoys sending money back home overseas (pre-’65) I believe the later generations (post-’65) wouldn’t have the means to go to school to become “prestigious professionals” or what have you. Very true it is now up to us to educate our communities that the more “established” or “elite” don’t just become that way overnight, someone had to break their back much prior in order to set that firm foundation!

  6. Johnny Itliong says:

    My father was one of the people that John Stinebeck wrote about. Thanks to John more people know about the social injustices that were brought upon the Manong Generation. And thanks to the Manongs we Filipino – Americans are not having to work the fields. But yet the Manongs are virtually unknown. I have committed my life to getting recognition for my father and the Delano Manongs. All of them were brought here with false promises. Now the history of my father “Larry D. Itliong” is being written wrong. And other are taking the credit for their work.

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