California’s rich food culture owes much to the Filipinx, Hmong, Lao, Sikh, and many other Southeast Asian agricultural workers who have stewarded the land for generations. Equally important, Asian agricultural workers up and down the state have farmed and organized alongside Latinx agricultural workers. Mexican and Filipino solidarity is the foundation of California’s agricultural workers rights movement, and for Law Center Staff Attorney Alejandra Cruz, so much more.
Alejandra grew up in California’s Central Valley in a family of agricultural workers that were both Mexican and Filipino. She shares that community care was so strong that “solidarity was in our bones”, which helped her thrive despite economic insecurity and a racist school system. In this blog post, she shares the stories of deep care and solidarity of her childhood community as inspiration for us to move from exploitation to collective ownership to rematriation and liberation.
Note: When you see this symbol ↕, I invite you to pause and take a breath.
“Mexipino or Filipxican?” That was the pressing question on a hot, summer day in mid-‘90s Livingston, California . We were sitting under a rusty canopy hiding out from the midday sun, and temps that I’m sure were somewhere between 100 and 120, which is customary in the Central Valley. We were chillin’, 209-style—my much cooler big sister, older cousins, and me. We sat with sharpies in hand, outside the chainlink of a tennis court with no nets and no players, tagging these non-dictionary terms on a picnic table. I preferred Filipxican because it sounded like doing a flip and the “x” really popped. We grew up with both cultures, both languages, and both cuisines (chicken adobo and chile verde, pancit and homemade tortillas, steamed rice and frijoles, dinuguan and menudo, adobong pusit and ceviche de pulpo...ahem, but I digress). Brown pride was something that we felt and heard about on a regular basis, and solidarity was in our bones before we even knew the word.
The People United...
I couldn’t tell you then what I learned later in life, which was that our heritage was forged through struggle. In school, I learned about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, leaders of the United Farm Workers (UFW), but we weren’t taught about Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. In 1965, after deciding to strike against grape growers in Delano, California, Filipino workers were replaced with Mexican workers and faced efforts by the bosses to divide workers along racial lines. Filipino leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) Itliong and Vera Cruz resisted that divide-and-conquer effort and sought out Chavez who was head of the National Farm Workers. Together they formed the United Farm Workers. It was that Mexican and Filipino solidarity that allowed the movement to gain traction through a prolonged strike that led to significant victories . Now, when I think of what it means to be a Mexipina, I think about this courageous show of solidarity.
The rise of violence against Asian-Americans and AAPI communities in recent months has got me thinking about what I can do to help. I am heartened to see the calls to action to build resistance to anti-Asian violence in solidarity with Black communities. We cannot buy into the lie that these pervasive acts of racist violence occur in a vacuum and that increased police surveillance is the answer. Similarly, we can’t pretend like the formation of the U.S. wasn’t made possible by the exploitation, exclusion, internment, and mass-murder of Asians and Pacific Islanders on U.S. soil and abroad. This is the reality that we need to face, and for which we need to seek meaningful amends and atonement.
To get to the root of the problem we must support and empower communities working in the economic sectors that are often left out of mainstream conversations—including the Filipino, Southeast Asian, and Sikh agricultural workers and farmers of the Central Valley. California is home to the largest share of Asian farmers compared to any other state. Further, “Fresno county has over 4,000 small family farmers (about 62% of all farms) [...] Almost half of all family farms are operated by minorities (54% Asian, 42% Hispanic). About 62% of the Asian farmers are Hmong from the mountain regions of Laos and 30% are Lao, from the lowlands of Laos.”
As a staff attorney with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, a worker self-directed non-profit, I participate in a process of collective decision making. One of our semi-autonomous spaces for decision making is the Food and Farm Circle, and right now we are actively engaged in supporting rematriation and collective land stewardship efforts across California.
The Law Center’s work to address the particular vulnerabilities of Hmong Refugee Farmers in Fresno provides valuable lessons as we embark on the next phase of our food and farm work. Among many vulnerabilities, the familial ties of the Hmong farmers made them especially vulnerable to unjust enforcement. “Because they are semi-subsistence farmers,” they faced the challenge of “demonstrating a distinction between the work of growing food for sale and for personal consumption.” “Generally, if family members all work together in a garden to grow food for themselves, they are not seen as employees. However, the fact that the farmers also grow food for sale means that an assumption of employment exists any time people are working in the field. For example, one farmer was fined $1000 for not providing workers compensation insurance to his live-in uncle. When the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) visited the farm, the uncle was helping out in the garden, tending to food that the family planned to eat. On appeal the farmer was unsuccessful in persuading the DIR commissioner that the uncle was not working for the enterprise.” Working together as family, and taking care of elders, should not lead to large fines and harassment.
As we contemplate the fertile ground for solidarity, collective stewardship, and mutual aid in the Central Valley, it is important to include the history of Black farmworkers in the Central Valley “escaping Jim Crow for a subtler kind of racism” and the oppressive conditions that resulted in a disproportionately high Covid-19 infection rates among Latino agricultural workers in the Central Valley.
From the Fields to the Packing Sheds to the Canneries
I would like to take a moment to lift up my family, my ancestors, and their work with the land.
My mom grew up in El Centro, California. She is a U.S. born Mexican from a mixed status family of 12 siblings and a survivor in every sense of the word. In 1974, she was 13 when she lied about her age and started working in the fields hoeing crops. She recalls not having any sense of other occupations and making $200 for two weeks of full time work.
Her mom, my nana, spent her life in the fields, then the packing sheds, before graduating to work in the canneries. She was a single mother after her husband, my grandfather, died of a heart attack when my mom was a little girl.
My dad is a Mexipino OG who worked with his dad in their small family gardening business, and brought that work ethic with him as he struggled to build a middle-class lifestyle with my stepfamily during my teenage years.
My grandpa was an Ilocano gardener from the Philippines, was wise, “small but terrible” (his words) and planted the tallest tree in Livingston.
My grandma told us stories of her childhood in Mexicali, making and selling flour tortillas for a living and throwing the bad ones over the fence so she wouldn’t get in trouble.
I would also like to name the parts of my heritage that exist in the shadows, the mental health struggles, addiction, involvement in gangs, incarceration, food/health/housing insecurity, and domestic violence. I know now that these struggles are not unique to my family but part of a legacy of colonization and white supremacist violence perpetrated against Filipinx, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples.
I am humbled by the strength and resilience of this lineage, and my ability to give back to the communities whose love and toil with food and farmland brought me into existence.
I am grateful for my friends and family, my beautiful daughter and partner—and for the relative stability and privilege that I experience today. Though I’ve faced many hurdles and stumbled along the way, I am the embodiment of my ancestors dreams—and I am humbled by this reality. When I think of it, it brings me to my knees. And all I can think to do is kneel down and kiss the earth (a phrase taught to me by spiritual leader and healer adélàjà simon.)
The Roots of Segregation in the Central Valley
When I was 9 years-old my parents got divorced, my mom, my big sister, little brother, and I moved from Patterson to Modesto. My mom started taking classes at Modesto Junior College and working full-time. She worked so hard to get on her feet and earn enough to keep a roof over our heads. This was a hard time for all of us. Luckily, I was able to take refuge in school and in friends who embraced me as kin.
Modesto was a disorienting place to grow up. One of the most exciting days of the year is Cinco de Mayo where rows of jewel-toned lowriders cruise up and down the famed McHenry Avenue bumping mariachi music and Bay Area hip-hop. White boys in board shorts and flip-flops would post-up in random parking lots in their pick-up trucks with oversized tires, waving huge American flags. They would inevitably start shouting racial slurs or the all-too-common refrain, “go back to Mexico.” If a fight broke out, the Modesto PD, already out in full force, were on the scene in seconds. The arrests usually came down along racial lines, at which point the instigators would speed-off over the nearest curb to find another perch.
I recently learned from my co-worker Dorian Payán that Modesto was home to the very first zoning law. In 1885, Modesto was the first U.S. city to use a zoning ordinance to segregate Chinese residents. The ordinances’ racism wasn’t overt: it mandated that the laundries, nearly all Chinese owned, be relegated to the southside of the railroad tracks. Non-Chinese laundry owners were given an exemption. This fact is not surprising given the intense racial and economic disparities that persist in the area. During elementary and middle school I lived in another segregated neighborhood on the east side of Modesto. My best friends were Mexican, Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Laotian, Korean, Filipina, and white. Many of my friends were children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. We all lived in the same neighborhood and I experienced a deep kinship with my friends and their families that I haven’t felt since. My friends’ parents fed me when we ran out of groceries at the end of the month, and gave me a place to hang out to avoid the isolation and turmoil of my homelife. We took care of each other. My community helped to raise me.
In high school, my academic abilities meant that I was one of a handful of BIPOC students that was tracked into Advanced Placement (AP) classes. The racist tracking system at my high school meant that I was surrounded by white students, whose families often owned ranches on the outskirts of the city, and a handful of Southeast Asian students plus the occasional one other Latina—though our school was majority Latinx. I could make a list of racist teachers that I had to maneuver through, and a shorter list of kind, supportive teachers that made all the difference.
Something I learned from finding myself at the top of the educational hierarchy at an early age was that “being on top” doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t mean that you are the smartest or the hardest working or the most capable. It just means that you are better able to contort yourself into something that the dominant culture values. The psychological and spiritual toll of which should not be ignored. You’re able to code-switch, not flash on people for micro-aggressions, and perhaps even accept, on some level, the lie that you deserve better treatment than others based on “merit” (as they define it.) What I learned from growing up in a diverse, working class neighborhood was that we need each other and we have a duty to love and support each other (to quote Assata Shakur.)
From Exploitation to Collective Ownership to Rematriation and Liberation
Economic justice is key, this means working across racial lines, moving from exploitation to collective ownership to rematriation and liberation. We must resist on all fronts, but we must also move beyond the confines of the institutions that have maintained our country’s racist hierarchies to begin with. We must move beyond oppressive hierarchies all together. And do all of this while lifting up the efforts of Indigenous groups, including the oft ignored unrecognized tribes, whose land we are on.
At the Law Center, we are working to empower immigrant owned cooperatives and supporting land return efforts for the Indigenous peoples of this land. Given all of the above, what is the path forward? What if the Mexican and Filipino workers that sacrifice their bodies to cultivate the land and harvest our food, actually owned the land and shared in the profits from their labor? What if we partnered with local tribes, honored sacred foodways, and called upon the wisdom of our ancestors to steward the land? What if we returned to our true nature, reclaimed our love for each other and for the land, recalled our sense of belonging, and took care of each other?
These are the questions that I hope to answer through my work in the months and years to come. I hope to learn from you all and I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce myself in this way.
Alejandra Lourdes Cruz
 The residents of Livingston are descended from people of many nations, including:
- Mexicans from Michoacán, the Yucatán, Chihuahua, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Oaxaca and other estados.
- Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries.
- People from Oklahoma and other parts of the United States of America. About 100 members of the Cherokee Nation live in the town.
- Portuguese from the Azores, Angola, and Brazil. About 10 percent of the locals speak Portuguese.
- Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from India and Pakistan. Livingston has one of the largest communities of Sikhs in the United States.
- Japanese, mostly from Wakayama. The Livingston Farmers' Association was founded by Japanese Americans.
- Mennonites from Germany and Russia.
- Armenians from the Middle East.
- Hmong from Laos and Vietnam.
- Cambodians from Cambodia.
- Vietnamese from South Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War.
An estimated 30 European, 25 Asian, 15 Latin American and 5 Sub-Saharan African nationalities are counted among Livingston's ethnic makeup. There are very few African-Americans in Livingston.
 Many historians note, however, that the scope of their victories could have been greater with the inclusion of undocumented workers into the ranks of the UFW.
 Rematriate: to restore a people to their rightful place in sacred relationship with their ancestral land.
 “Many farmworkers in California’s Central Valley live in crowded households, which can facilitate the spread of Covid-19.”
 Patterson is a city in Stanislaus County, California, United States, located off Interstate 5. It is 27 miles (43 km) southeast of Tracy and is part of the Modesto Metropolitan Statistical Area. Patterson is known as the "Apricot Capital of the World"; the town holds an annual Apricot Fiesta to celebrate with many drinks, food, desserts and games. The population was estimated to be 20,413 at the 2010 Census.
 Modesto has a large agricultural industry which is based on the fertile farmland surrounding the city. Modesto is home to the largest winery in the world: E & J Gallo Winery. The Gallo Glass Company, a company of Gallo Winery, is the largest wine bottle manufacturing company in the world. The company provides thousands of office and manufacturing jobs to Stanislaus County residents. Other major privately owned companies based in Modesto include Foster Farms Dairy, Royal Robbins, international award winner Fiscalini Cheese, Sciabica Olive Oil, Acme Construction, Aderholt Specialty, and 5.11 Tactical (formerly a part of Royal Robbins, a United States brand of clothing consisting of uniforms and tactical equipment for military). A cannery downtown produces food which is usually shipped to Sacramento and Fresno for transfer to rail or ship. Ceres has a few cereal and snack factories in the area. There are several small steelworking companies in Modesto. In mid-2008, a number of road projects were being constructed, repaved or repaired, with an estimated total cost of nearly $120,000,000.