Watsonville Riots

By Matthew Ogunlana

Agricultural industry

Filipinos supplied California's exploding agricultural industry.

Filipinos were largely migrant farm workers. The cheap farm labor needed to make California agriculture so immensely profitable came largely from Asian contract labor.

Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and ending with the Immigration Act of 1917, laws and informal treaty agreements prohibited the immigration of Asian contract laborers. These laws and agreements limited the cheap labor needed for California’s economic growth, particularly its flourishing agricultural industry. As each new Asian immigrant group was barred from entry, employers sought recruits from a different Asian nation. By 1917, contract laborers from China, Korea, Japan, and India were all barred from entering the U.S. However, unlike other Asian migrants, Filipinos held a unique status as U.S. nationals that allowed them to immigrate and made them a valuable labor source in California. (Depression Era)

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5 Things You (Probably) Did Not Know About the Watsonville Riots

Watsonville Riots

The riots changed the lives of african americans in 1930. There were many causes for these riots, the intrusion of Asian laborers into California’s fields was a main reason. It was a disaster. (Watsonville Riots)

The Filipino’s, in defense, said that they did not have too many female companions of their own race and were just wishing to escort some females for companionship with no thought to what race they were. The first of these riots took place in a pool hall on New Years Eve when a couple of Filipinos boldly escorted white girls to a dance. It was really sad how much fighting there was of the information The men were beaten down and stoned. Later on, the riots got more intense and more violent. Shots were fired, men were killed, and buildings were burned down. The real trouble started on January 20, 1930 when 200 enraged citizens came to the Filipino Club to disrupt the dance and take nine white women who were inside. They came with clubs and weapons intending to burn the place down. The owners retaliated by threatening to shoot if the rioters persisted. Shots were fired, and cops showed up with gas bombs to break up the riot. Two men were hit and severely injured. The sad thing is that the violence didn’t stop. Three days later a Filipino worker was shot and killed in his sleep. Five days later, another camp of Filipnio workers was attacked while they slept. This sort of terrorism on Filipino’s continued and did lasting damage to Filipino heritage and culture. (Watsonville Riots)



Sixty-five years ago, anti-Filipino violence exploded in the farmlands of California. It began in the little town of Exeter, which lies in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, 40 miles southeast of Fresno. The sparks set off another conflagration in Watsonville, (in Pajaro Valley) near Monterey. The chain of events led to the formal promise of independence for the Philippines and the formation of the militant Filipino unions of the 1930s.

Before Exeter, however, the first overt attacks against Filipinos had already taken place in the apple orchards of the Yakima and Wenatchee Valleys of Washington state in 1928, with hate-driven violence exploding again in May 1930 in the White River Valley south of Seattle and again in Wapatao in 1934. (Scattered attacks against Filipinos in Washington actually continued into the 1940s.) Filipinos were a natural target in a depressed economic landscape. (Watsonville Riots)


Filipinos pose before the ruins of their bombed-out clubhouse in Stockton, California in 1930. (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Exeter Incident

Asian labor was indispensable to the ranchers and farmers of California, but white workers blamed the Chinese and Japanese for undermining their wages. So the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed to exclude Asians from the United States. However, Filipinos could not be excluded because they were from an American territory, and they were recruited to fill the void left by the excluded Chinese and Japanese. By 1929 Filipinos were the major migrant labor group in the fields of the Central Valley. They had also become the new target of white hostility, even though many white workers often refused to do the work for which Filipinos were hired.

Although the wounds were minor, the two appeared more seriously injured at the time of the incident.


The simple case of battery became a major international incident. Newspapers throughout the United States and the world discussed the “California disease” of racial discrimination. On October 29, The New York Times reported that the Insular House of Representatives in Manila had passed a resolution protesting the discrimination of Filipinos in America. The Exeter incident brought the issue of Philippine independence to broader public attention. (Watsonville Riots)










Filipinos Roar Back


The heated rhetoric quickly went from the printed word to the raised fists of white youths and the defiant gestures of Filipinos to assert their right to be in Pajaro.






Watsonville Riot

Roving gangs of whites began attacking Filipinos in the streets of Watsonville and Pajaro. Each evening, an angry crowd of whites tried to enter the Filipino club but were turned away. On January 21, the authorities finally took action when armed confrontation between Filipinos and the white mob became imminent. Violence was averted with the arrival of the sheriff with armed deputies.

The white mob quickly left Palm Beach but soon spread out throughout the valley, attacking Filipino labor camps. On January 22, at the Murphy Ranch located four miles east of Pajaro, several carloads of whites fired shots into the bunkhouse where Filipinos were sleeping. As soon as the first shots were fired, the Filipinos dropped to the floor or hid in closets. Fermin Tobera, 22, fell dead with a bullet through his heart.

“The Watsonville Riot” became another international incident. Tobera came to symbolize American intolerance and the desire of Filipinos for their independence. In the Philippines, Sunday, February 2 was observed as “humiliation day” in memory of Tobera. When his body arrived in Manila, it was accorded a state funeral.

The shocked authorities quickly took steps to bring the situation under control. A 6:00 p.m. curfew was imposed and the streets of both Pajaro and Watsonville were patrolled by deputies to prevent further anti-Filipino demonstrations. By the end of February, the streets were safe for Filipinos again. However, as in August when white workers armed with clubs chased them through the streets, things remained tense.

Eight youths, members of very prominent families in the Pajaro Valley, were arrested for the murder of Tobera and tried in Rohrback’s court. They were found guilty and sentenced by the Monterey Superior Court to two years in prison. However, the sentences were quickly suspended. Most white researchers of the period claimed race was not a factor in the attacks on Filipinos.

In the weeks following the Watsonville Riot, in the month of January 1930, several other incidents took place:

San Francisco: Two Filipinos were attacked by a gang of white men who escaped before the police arrived. The two were arrested for disturbing the peace.

San Jose: Four Filipinos who defended themselves when they were attacked on a city street were convicted of stabbing a white man.

Stockton: The clubhouse of the Filipino Federation of America was bombed. The bombing was followed by isolated street fights.

From January 1930 through 1941 “night riders,” similar to the Ku Klux Klan, harassed Filipinos. In September 1934, “vigilantes” tried to force Filipinos to leave the town of Turlock.

Prior to October 1929 the debate on Philippine independence was centered on why the islands should be given sovereignty. After the Watsonville Riot, the question changed to “How soon can the U.S. give the Filipinos their independence?” so they could be banned from this country. The manongs stayed; and we’re still here.

Sixty-five years ago, anti-Filipino violence exploded in the farmlands of California. It began in the little town of Exeter, which lies in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, 40 miles southeast of Fresno. The sparks set off another conflagration in Watsonville, (in Pajaro Valley) near Monterey. The chain of events led to the formal promise of independence for the Philippines and the formation of the militant Filipino unions of the 1930s.


Filipinos pose before the ruins of their bombed-out clubhouse in Stockton, California in 1930. (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Exeter Incident



A mob of more than 300 men quickly formed, pursued the Filipino attacker to the E. J. Firebaugh ranch and set fire to the barn where the Filipinos workers were living. Innocent Filipinos were attacked and forced to flee to Visalia, Tulare and Fresno for safety. Ralph H. Woodward and Alva Hoskins were arrested for setting fire to the Firebaugh barn.





Rohrback’s Rhetoric

Filipinos Roar Back













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Source

"The Watsonville Riot." Abagond. N.p., 21 May 2015. Web. 01 Feb. 2016.

"Depression Era: 1930s: Watsonville Riots." Depression Era: 1930s: Watsonville Riots. Accessed February 05, 2016. http://picturethis.museumca.org/timeline/depression-era-1930s/watsonville-riots/info.