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Fathers at the Heart of Santa Cruz Exhibit Celebrating Early Filipino Farmworkers

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A man wearing glasses and a shirt with exotic designs stands in front of a display of old garlic.
Daniel Fallorina, 67, stands in front of a display showing his father's last crop of braided garlic at the exhibit 'Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley' at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. (Courtesy Janelle Salanga)

Joanne De Los Reyes-Hilario, 51, still lives in the Watsonville house where she spent her childhood.

She said it wasn’t a coincidence that her dad, Johnny Tabol Irao De Los Reyes, chose to live near the coast.

“Their little town where he grew up [in the Philippines] … was right on the water,” De Los Reyes-Hilario said.

Her dad was one of the first Filipinos to immigrate to the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, part of what’s called the Manong generation. ‘Manong’ means elder in Ilokano.

Because many of the early manongs worked in the fields, De Los Reyes-Hilario said the lineage of Watsonville Filipinos begins ‘in the ground.’


“I remember my dad coming home and just smelling the fresh dirt, just the way he smelled in his flannel, and the dust,” she said. “We came from dirt.”

Her family story is now part of a new exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History that runs through August called Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley.

A wall showing family photos from different eras.
Many family photos are on-view as part of the exhibit ‘Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley,’ at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. (Courtesy Janelle Salanga)

The manongs were predominantly men, and Sowing Seeds chronicles how they became fathers, built families and made a community. Fathers are featured in the family photos on display and in personal artifacts that tell the manongs’ stories. A dining table set with porcelain. Framed family photos mounted on shelves. Childhood Maria Clara dress sleeves hanging on the walls.

There’s even a braid of garlic heads that’s decades old — the last garlic crop Mariano Fallorina harvested from his personal garden before he died.

“Even though he worked out in [the] fields, he still had a garden at home because he was able to plant the things that he wanted to and enjoy those things,” his son, Daniel Fallorina, 67, said at the exhibit’s reception.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about the Filipino stories,” added Fallorina. “As I’ve grown older, [I’ve found out] how hard all these older Filipinos worked. Their stories weren’t captured.”

A woman wearing a jean jacket and red dress stands near a map on a wall with another person looking on to the right of her.
Curator Christina Ayson-Plank explains a section of the exhibit ‘Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley’ to Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History staff just before opening on April 12. (Courtesy Janelle Salanga)

Fallorino’s father wasn’t the only Pajaro Valley farmworker who had grown a personal garden for himself. That’s part of why the exhibit is called Sowing Seeds, said Christina Ayson-Plank, who curated the exhibit.

“Their gardening practice was their way of taking back the narrative,” she said.

While gathering oral histories for Watsonville is in the Heart, Ayson-Plank and her fellow researchers asked themselves, “Why would this group of farmworkers who worked several hours of their day, doing this intensive labor, want to come back home to garden?”

“[They’re] saying, ‘This garden that we’ve created is for us, and we are doing this for our community,’” she explained.

The title of the exhibit, Sowing Seeds, is multifaceted, Ayson-Plank said. It reflects the predominantly agricultural community and is a metaphor for the exhibit itself, which sows seeds for future research.

But it also represents how the Filipino American community has been “recording, preserving and developing all of these amazing research and histories that are just waiting to be told,” she said.

For manongs’ children, anti-Filipino race riots a “hidden history”

As the former mayor of Watsonville, Manuel Bersamin is familiar with Watsonville Plaza, which is kitty-corner to the city hall. He also remembers it as a place his late father, Max Bersamin, used to come and hang out during his lifetime.

“I’m holding a picture of my father now, and I remember he actually used to sit in a bench over there — and he would sit not only with Filipinos, but he would sit with retired Mexicans, retired Anglo, Euro Americans,” he said. “I kind of think that that’s how I like to remember him. He was a friend to everyone.”

Bersamin contributed several memories of his father to an oral history archive called Watsonville is in the Heart, a partnership between the Tobera Project, a community organization, and UC Santa Cruz. The oral histories, accounts of Pajaro Valley life through the eyes of manongs’ children, are the backbone of the exhibit. Visitors can listen to snippets from fourteen oral histories, including Fallorina’s and Bersamin’s, through the exhibit’s audio guide.

Bersamin wanted to share his father’s story to honor his dad’s life and decades of work in the fields.

“I hope his essence isn’t just blown away in the smoke trails of history,” he said.

A hand holds a small picture of a man wearing a hat.
A photo shows Max Bersamin, the late father of former Watsonville mayor Manuel Bersamin. Manuel said he told his sisters to take their grandkids to see the ‘Sowing Seeds’ exhibit ‘so they can actually start to teach their own children, and my father’s great-grandchildren, about what my father went through when he came to this country.’ (Courtesy Janelle Salanga)

In his oral history, Bersamin remembers his dad as a great cook, chicken fighter, gambler, and a laborer active in the burgeoning United Farm Workers union in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But he said his father never mentioned the anti-Filipino riots that happened in Watsonville in the 1930s.

Racism and economic anxieties during the Great Depression heightened tensions between early Filipino immigrants, who were mostly single men, and local white men.

They saw Filipinos as competition for jobs. And when Filipino men were seen dancing with white women at a newly opened dance hall, white men’s frustrations and prejudice boiled over.

Over three days, more than 500 men ransacked Filipino laborers’ homes. They killed Fermin Tobera, a 22-year-old Filipino farmworker.

It wasn’t until 2020 that Watsonville passed a resolution apologizing to its Filipino community for the racist violence decades earlier. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors followed suit last year, apologizing for jailing Filipinos across the Pajaro River during the riots.

Bersamin said that painful part of local Filipino American history wasn’t dinner table conversation as he grew up. Instead, it was a “hidden history” that scarred the manong generation.

“I didn’t hear any of that [history] from my father or the older Filipinos that we called uncles,” he said.

Bersamin first learned about the riots and the deep history of Filipinos in Watsonville when he went to college at UC Irvine and took an Asian American history class.

Bersamin said he wishes he and his dad could have had a more open dialogue about that history. Not just about the riots but the persistence it took to survive and build a life despite intense racism and the low wages many early Filipino immigrants earned as farmworkers.

Recontextualizing the history of Filipinos in the Pajaro Valley

Filipino history in Watsonville is often reduced to just the anti-Filipino riots of the 1930s, said UC Santa Cruz history professor Kathleen Gutierrez, who is the co-principal investigator for the oral history and digital research archive.

“That moment gets very, very much cemented in Asian American history, Filipino American history, even U.S. history as really, this kind of incredible shame,” she said.

But the Sowing Seeds exhibit opens a window into a fuller history of the Filipino community’s resilience despite racism and prejudice.

“We’re … hearing from Filipino Americans themselves here, about not only that event but other aspects of that history,” she said.

Many oral histories focus on families spending time at beaches or fishing and foraging — something distinct from other agrarian Filipino enclaves in California, like Delano, Stockton and Bakersfield.

A woman wearing a navy blue jacket stands outside of a home.
Joanne De Los Reyes-Hilario stands in front of the library in Marina, Calif. Her family’s story is part of the exhibit ‘Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley’ at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. (Courtesy Janelle Salanga)

That includes Joanne De Los Reyes-Hilario, whose oral history talks about how she inherited her father’s love of fishing and the ocean.

On the last Father’s Day before he passed away, De Los Reyes-Hilario drove her dad to the nearest body of water she could think of — the Elkhorn Slough, about a ten-minute drive south of Watsonville. He had been in a convalescent home after a stroke in 1986 and hadn’t been near the shore since then.

At the time, she said, she remembers thinking: “Dad loved the fish — I know he would appreciate being close to the water.”

Decades after his passing, she realized that Father’s Day outing was the best gift she could’ve given him.

“I loved him so much. And I know that he would do the best that he could,” she said.

As she’s grown older, Joanne said she’s thought about how these stories of fathers from the manong generation and their kids could be lost if they aren’t archived and shared.

For her, the archive and exhibit’s value also lies in its ability to help her daughter understand her lineage.

“This is a gift that I’m gonna leave for you,” she said, tearing up. “This is gonna be forever. It’s gonna be there — once I’m gone, if you miss my voice, you can go back and hear my voice. If there’s anything that you can leave behind, it’s the stories that you tell, and it’s things like this.”

The exhibit is on display through August, and the Watsonville is in the Heart archive is viewable online.

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