Exeter incident

The Event: Anti-Filipino riot in a farming community in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where there had been a long-standing feud between Filipino field-workers and their white counterparts

Date: October 24, 1929

Location: Exeter, California

Significance: This racially motivated attack on Filipino farmworkers was one of the first of several similar attacks in central California’s agricultural centers. It led to another, larger attack in Watsonville, which in turn prompted a decline of Filipino immigration to California and encouraged California farmers to turn to Mexican laborers to work their fields.

One of the causes of anti-Filipino prejudice in California was economic. While American workers were generally unwilling to perform “stoop labor” in agricultural fields, Filipinos, who had replaced Chinese and Japanese farmworkers in California, were willing to work ten-hour days for less than two dollars, six days a week. This was only about half of what union factory workers were paid during the late 1920’s. The Filipinos cut asparagus, planted cauliflower, and—much to the ire of white workers— harvested Kadota figs and Emperor grapes— both jobs that had formerly been reserved for white workers.

In addition to providing economic competition for white farmworkers, Filipinos socialized with white women making them targets on both counts. With a ratio of approximately forty Filipino men to each Filipina woman in California, Filipino men frequented taxi-dance halls, where they could dance with white women. In October of 1929, when a number of Filipino men escorted white women to a street carnival in the town of Exeter, white men pelted them with rubber bands. In the fight that ensued, a white man was stabbed and a riot broke out. Instead of maintaining public safety, the local police chief responded by leading into the agricultural fields a band of three hundred white vigilantes, who attacked the Filipino workers with simple farm tools, beating and stoning them. About fifty Filipinos were injured, and more than two hundred were driven from their camp.

Aftermath of the Exeter Incident

The following year, memories of the Exeter incident contributed to more anti-Filipino rioting in Watsonville, a town near California’s coast. The Watsonville riots only made the situation worse for Filipino workers. One inflammatory event involved an alleged attempt to sell a sixteen-year-old white girl to a Filipino man; a picture of the man embracing the girl made the newspapers. The subsequent opening of another taxi-dance hall in nearby Palm Beach further inflamed racist passions. After a series of Filipino run-ins with local law enforcement, a local judge was quoted as saying that if the present situation were to continue, there would be “forty thousand half-breeds” in California within ten years. The judge also charged that Filipino workers were both impregnating white women and crowding whites out of their jobs—thereby linking sex and economics.

Politicians added fuel to the fire when they presented a Filipino exclusion bill in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. These events culminated in a series of battles between whites and Filipinos that ended on January 23, 1930, when a Filipino man named Fermin Tobera was killed by random gunshots. His body was returned to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where it lay in state. Afterward, Tobera became a nationalist icon in his country’s struggle to win independence from the United States.

Despite other racist attacks in California, in such farming communities as Salinas, Stockton, and Gilroy, most of the Filipino workers in California remained in the state. Later in 1930, they staged a successful strike in the Salinas lettuce fields. Eventually, Filipino laborers were replaced by Mexican braceros, who then became new targets of American racism.

Thomas L. Erskine

Further Reading

  • DeWitt, Howard A., ed. Violence in the Fields: California Filipino Farm Labor Unionization During the Great Depression. Saratoga, Calif.: Century Twenty-One Publishing, 1980. 
  • Melendy, H. Brett. “Filipinos in the United States.” Pacific Historical Review 43 (November, 1974): 520-547. 
  • Min, Pyong Gap, ed. Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006. 

See also: Anti-Filipino violence; Farm and migrant workers; Filipino immigrants; History of immigration after 1891.

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