Monday, January 29, 2007

Philip Vera Cruz

When the 3.5 million of us Filipinos in America, following the lead of all other immigrant groups before and after us, begin to advocate for US parks, streets and schools to be named after our trailblazing pioneers, serious consideration should be given to the name of Philip Vera Cruz, a Pinoy farm worker leader of extraordinary vision and leadership.

A new generation of Filipinos may now get the opportunity to know Philip with the recent publication of Sid Amores Valledor’s “The Original Writings of Philip Vera Cruz” (available on, which was described by Dr. Jovina Navarro from San Jose State University as: an “insightful look into a philosophical and international mind, (whose) experiences influenced his political perspective, which guided his actions.”

Another book, “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement” by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, was initially published by the UCLA Labor Center in 1992 and again in 1995, owing to the high demand for it. In 2000, the University of Washington Press in Seattle published the third edition of the book (also available through with a new introduction.

Philip, who died in 1994, was a close personal friend over the years and was ninong (sponsor) at my wedding in 1979. I first met him in 1971 while attending an anti-war rally at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I heard this distinctly Filipino voice speaking over the loudspeakers to an estimated 400,000 people who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War.

I inched my way to the stage to get a glimpse of the man behind the voice. By the time I got to the stage, however, he was no longer speaking but it was still easy to find him as he was the only Filipino backstage. I introduced myself to him and we exchanged phone numbers and addresses. We communicated for the next year as he traveled all over the US and Europe encouraging people to boycott grapes and support the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), where he was the 2nd Vice-President under Cesar Chavez and 1st Vice President Dolores Huerta.

When I taught the History of Filipinos in America class at San Francisco State University (SFSU) from1972 to 1978, I often brought my students to Delano to do volunteer work at the Agbayani Village there. Even today, many of my former students at SF State, like Union City Vice-Mayor Jim Navarro, count their visit to Delano as the highlight of their college experience.

Agbayani Village, named after Filipino farm worker Paolo Agbayani, who died from a stroke in 1967 while manning a UFW picket line, was Philip's project as he wanted his union to build a retirement village for farm workers. In Delano, they interacted with the manongs (elder brother, an honorific) while doing construction work at the Village. After breakfast on Sundays, we would visit the actual camps where the manongs lived, many of them since the 1930s).

Manong Philip would be our tour guide, giving the students a history of the farm worker experience. In one visit in 1974, I brought along my friends, Craig and Lilia Scharlin, to join my students in Delano and to meet Philip. They were so impressed with Philip during that visit that they decided to do his oral history. Craig and Lilia spent the next decade interviewing him on tape, transcribing the tapes and organizing the narrative to produce their book, “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement”.

In one chapter of this book, Philip provides an account of his conflict with Cesar Chavez over Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. This occurred in August of 1977 when Marcos extended an invitation to Chavez to visit the Philippines. The invitation was coursed through a pro-Marcos former UFW leader, Andy Imutan, who carried it to Cesar and lobbied him to visit to the Philippines.

At a UFW Board meeting where the Marcos invitation was brought up, Cesar turned to Philip, who recounts the exchange in his book:

“Well, Philip, what do you think?” and I said, “No, I don’t approve of it. I don’t like the form of government Marcos has created because it’s very oppressive. It’s a dictatorship. There are thousands of political prisoners; people are arrested without charges or benefit of trial.”…I could see that after Chris and I spoke, Cesar wasn’t in the mood to listen anymore. I know how he gets. It doesn’t do any good if I kept talking so I just shut up. Then Cesar said, “Well, all right” and he moved right on to the next order of business and that’s all that was said about that issue. He didn’t want to decide then because he could see that his position was weak.”

After another Board meeting, however, Cesar had the votes he needed to secure support for his Philippine visit (Philip cast the only dissenting vote). In Manila, Cesar appeared with Marcos in photo-ops and was quoted as saying that Marcos’ martial law appeared to be helping the people.

Philip wrote: “What Cesar did there in the Philippines is the saddest day in the history of the farmworkers movement in this country. It was a disgrace. Cesar was toasting Marcos with all those phony labor leaders appointed by Marcos at the presidential palace while, at the same time, on the other side of Manila, the real union leaders were in jail.”

When he returned to California, Cesar invited Marcos’ labor minister, Blas Ople, to speak at the UFW national convention in August of 1977. After Ople told the UFW delegates that the Filipino people support Marcos, Philip rose to challenge that assertion but was prevented from doing so by Cesar Chavez.

Philip asked him why he wasn't allowed to speak: >em> “Cesar said to me, “No, because you’re going to insult him (Ople).” That’s exactly what Cesar said to me then. So what could I do?...You can see what a sad state of affairs Cesar had come to when he was officially gagging a union officer who had been with the union since its inception while allowing a representative of a right-wing foreign government a free voice to speak to the union rank and file.”

In the union elections that followed, Cesar Chavez was reelected union president by acclamation. Dolores Huerta, 1st Vice-President, was similarly re-elected. But Philip Vera Cruz, the UFW 2nd Vice-President from the inception of the Union, was not even nominated. Instead, another Chicano (Mexican

American), Eliseo Medina, was nominated and elected to replace Philip, thus removing the last Filipino to hold a leadership post in a union that came into being because of the Delano Strike of 1965 initiated by the Filipino farm workers.

As an outgoing national officer, Philip was given an opportunity to address the convention, for the last time, and he used it to criticize Cesar Chavez for becoming “reactionary.” “I cannot understand why a resolution was passed to condemn the dictatorship of Nicaragua and, at the same convention, to praise the dictatorship of the Philippines...It cannot be hot and cold at the same time," he said.

In the final chapter of his book, Philip wrote: “Since I left the union, it’s kind of funny or ironic, but I feel liberated. I feel that now I have more freedom…I could say what I felt in my heart and nobody could censure me.”

At Philip's funeral in 1994, many old-time Chicano UFW officials came to pay their respects to a man they highly respected. "He was right and Cesar was wrong", many of them acknowledged.

There are thousands of parks, streets and schools in the United States named after Cesar Chavez. There is not one named after Philip Vera Cruz.

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