In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Geoffrey Dunn chronicles the life of his late friend, Godofredo ‘Freddy’ Alnas—and a dark and forgotten chapter in Santa Cruz County history
Why was America so kind and yet so cruel?
It was like going to war with other soldiers;
some survived death, but could not survive life.
-Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart
August, 1983. The first low tide of the day follows closely on the heels of dawn, and 71-year-old Godofredo “Freddy” Alnas, a bucket and iron-rebar cane in one hand, a well-worn pocket knife in the other, is busy scuttling about the tide pools of Lighthouse Point in search of seaweed for his evening meal.
He leans over and, just as he might have a half-century earlier on the other side of the earth, carefully slices a small bunch of kelp from a rock and places it in the bucket with the rest of his harvest. “That good seaweed,” he says in an English that is richly colored by the dialect and cadences of his native Luzon Island in the northern Philippines. “Chinese like it, too,” he smiles. “Makes good soup.”
Droplets of saltwater sparkle on his thick, tawny hands as he lifts himself upright with the aid of his cane. “Good spot over there,” he points, and slowly he is moving toward more bounty, very much at ease here among the hermit crabs and young surfers in pursuit of other sensations at Steamer Lane.
Later, his bucket full, Freddy hunts for pile worms among the muscles and barnacles clinging to the cliffs. He will use them for bait a few hours later when the tide is higher and schools of fish move into the small, rocky coves three or four miles up the coast, just north of Yellowbank Beach.
Fishing is good, and by the time the wind picks up in the late afternoon, Freddy has a nice string of perch. He cleans the fish, then the seaweed, packs everything neatly into the trunk of his faded blue 1972 Ford sedan, and drives to his apartment at a senior and low-income housing project on the Westside of Santa Cruz, just off Mission Street.
Freddy moves easily about his kitchen. For more than 30 years he worked intermittently as a cook in the Filipino farm labor camps on the North Coast, between Santa Cruz and Pescadero.
Very quickly, the fish and seaweed join with some steamed rice to form a meal more truly suited for the gods. “Eat, eat!” Freddy urges his guests. “There’s plenty fish.” His eyes are smiling as his friends enjoy the fruits of his many labors. He reaches down to his own plate, rolls some rice and seaweed into a ball, and pushes it into his mouth. His eyes look around the room to make sure that his guests are happy and well fed.
It is hard for me to believe, rewriting this portrait of Freddy Alnas in the summer of 2012, that it has been nearly three decades since I first jotted down those notes about my dear friend Freddy, who passed away 15 years ago this month. He was like a father or uncle to me; a confidante and mentor. He was a human talisman, too, a high priest of joy.
I first met Freddy as a teenager while working as a fish cutter on the Santa Cruz wharf, and Freddy would come around, offering a hand with his knife in exchange for a bucket of the fish heads that would pile up on the cutting table. We quickly became fast friends—like family—and for the next 20 years or so our lives were closely intertwined, as we spent many of our days together in a variety of locales—at the cutting tables, in tide pools and fishing bluffs, in Brussels sprout fields and farm labor camps, at cockfights and on drives to San Juan Bautista—and even, once, to Mexico.
Freddy was a friend of my great-uncle, Malio Stagnaro, a mainstay on the Santa Cruz wharf who had many acquaintances among Freddy’s Filipino countrymen, and it was Malio who had originally introduced Freddy to me when I was young. My great-uncle had a vulgar nickname that he called Freddy, a term of endearment that cannot be repeated here, and it was through him that I originally realized that Freddy had a special bond with the older generation of Italian fishermen who once dominated the Santa Cruz waterfront. Freddy quickly included me in his inner-circle.
That wasn’t the case with some of the next generation of my family who could be judgmental and culturally conservative and more than a bit intolerant of my long hair and radical political views (they were all right-wing Republicans). Freddy and the other manong (Filipino for uncles), in contrast, were open and welcoming to the young Italian-Irish kid who was often the black sheep among his own blood.
For a variety of reasons—many of which had to do with an insidious racism in American society—the manong never melded with the Wonder bread culture of post-World War II America. They most certainly didn’t worship at the well of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, or any of the other conservative icons of 1970s and 1980s American society.
I felt perfectly at home with all of them, but, mostly, I was close to Freddy. Like me, he could handle a knife—with fish and chicken and seaweed and Brussels sprout stalks—and for the better part of 20 years, we enjoyed an easy and comfortable relationship as we journeyed on strikingly different paths during far different stages in our respective lives.
At some point during my mid-twenties, after graduating from college at UC Santa Cruz and beginning a doctoral program there in sociology, a close friend of one of my cousins, Rafael “Rio” Riotutar, himself the son of one of the manong and whose father had been a close friend of Freddy’s, gave me a copy of Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical work, “America is in the Heart,” in which he chronicled the lives of his Pinoy (immigrant) brothers during the difficult times of the 1930s and 1940s.
“I know deep down in my heart,” wrote Bulosan (1913-1956), “that I am an exile in America … I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
I was rather stunned after reading the book. I was not naïve about the racist undercurrents in American history, but Bulosan’s powerful work opened up my eyes to nuances and facets of Freddy’s life that I hadn’t fully understood before. I wrote various profiles of Freddy and other manong—including a cover feature for my editor at the old Santa Cruz Express, Buz Bezore—and later made a documentary film with my friends Mark Schwartz, George Ow and Cori Houston, entitled Dollar a Day, 10¢ a Dance: A Historic Portrait of Filipino Farm Workers in America.
Originally, we had intended to focus the film entirely on Freddy, but we soon realized that the narrative needed a multiplicity of voices to tell the tale of a generation of men (and some women) who had come to America in pursuit of the American Dream, but who, instead, as Bulosan noted, had encountered an American Nightmare.
The film received numerous film festival awards, including special recognition from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and helped to make the history of Freddy and his countryman more accessible to a broader swath of the American public.
And though Freddy wasn’t the sole voice in the movie, he remained its star. At the end of the film, his poignant, beautifully rendered a capella rendition of the popular song “Mexicali Rose,” captured both the tragedy and the beauty of a generation of men who had been pushed to the periphery of American society—men who, in spite of everything, had never lost their souls nor the sparkle in their eyes.
As I type the lyrics, I can still hear Freddy singing the words in his sweet, melodic tenor, his eyes focused on Cori Houston as Mark Schwartz filmed the scene.
Mexicali Rose, stop crying;
I’ll come back to you some sunny day.
Ev’ry night you’ll know that I’ll be pining,
Ev’ry hour a year while I’m away,
Dry those big brown eyes and smile, dear,
Banish all those tears and please don’t sigh,
Kiss me once again and hold me;
Mexicali Rose, goodbye.
In many ways, the life story of Godofredo Leonardo Alnas embodies the dark side of Santa Cruz County history. At one time there were up to 2,500 Filipino men living here locally, and it was largely their labor that turned the soils of the Pajaro Valley and north coast during the 1920s and 1930s into the fertile farmlands they remain today. It is a story long buried in our county’s history, swept under the rug by so-called historians with Euro-centric backgrounds who would rather it remain forgotten.
In 1930, 17-year-old Freddy Alnas, weak and sickly from a near-fatal case of the mumps, left his mother and three sisters in the Philippines for the promise of wealth in California. His father, a rice farmer in Luzon who worked his paddies with a plow pulled by caribou, had left the impoverished islands a year earlier and found work in the lettuce fields near San Juan Bautista. Freddy joined his father, two uncles and some cousins on lettuce crews up and down the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys.
Between 1924, the year of the Japanese Immigration Act, which prohibited the further entrance of Japanese laborers into the U.S., and 1930, 35,000 Filipinos arrived in California to replace Japanese workers in the fields, and their numbers swelled to 100,000 when including all of the western states along with the then-territories of Hawaii and Alaska.
Almost all of the immigrants, dubbed Pinoy, were men, and like their counterparts in San Francisco’s Chinatown, theirs was a so-called bachelor’s society—a society in which marriage was foreign, and gambling, drinking and dancehall girls were all a part of the daily routine. “The women never left,” says Freddy. “They stay in the Philippines and take care of home.” In California, the ratio of Filipino men to women was 14 to 1.
Discriminatory practices against the new arrivals were abundant. Filipinos were barred from hotels, cafes, swimming pools, barbershops, pool halls and most neighborhoods. Signs went up declaring: “No Dogs and Filipinos Allowed.” They were referred to as “little brown brothers,” in the popular journals of the day, “monkeys,” “baboons,” and worse.
Forced to live in rundown apartments, the manong often packed a dozen friends and relatives into a single room. They were also prohibited from marrying white women: California’s anti-miscegenation law, first passed in 1872 and amended in 1906, forbade all interracial marriages and was not repealed until 1948.
“To be a Filipino in California,” observed the late Carey McWilliams (1905-1980) in his 1943 exposé of American racism, “Brothers Under the Skin,” “is to belong to a blood brotherhood, a freemasonry of the ostracized … Their own native cultural values have been cast aside, yet at the same time, an uncrossable chasm exists between them and American life.”
Never known for its racial tolerance, the city of Watsonville found itself as the social center of a large Filipino community. Tension between whites and Filipinos had been mounting in South County throughout the late 1920s. With the growing economic strains and resultant unemployment brought on by the Great Depression, that tension snapped during an ugly two-week period the year of Freddy’s arrival, 1930.
The Watsonville Anti-Filipino Riot of January of 1930, a piece of local history that was to have national—and international—repercussions, was precipitated, from the Filipino perspective, largely by the presence of white women who danced with Filipinos for pay at a Pinoy nightclub between Watsonville and Moss Landing, an area known as Palm Beach.
Racist rhetoric by both a Monterey County judge and the Watsonville Evening Pajaronian fueled anti-Filipino sentiment. During the week of Jan. 10, the Evening Pajaronian distinguished itself with a series of inflammatory articles and headlines intended to stir up vigilante activities.
The paper, for instance, saw fit to feature the opinions of a local socialite, who declared: “Taxi-dance halls where white women dance with Orientals may be all right in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but not in our community. We won’t stand for anything of the kind.”
Soon thereafter, five days of violent rioting broke out in the greater Watsonville area. Angry mobs of whites, ranging in number from 200 to 700, sought out Filipinos in the streets, bars, farms and field houses. On the final day of the rioting, 700 vigilantes chased 46 Filipinos down Watsonville’s Main Street, where they were fortunate enough to find refuge and police protection in the city council chambers.
Frustrated within the city limits, the mob dispersed and headed for the neighboring farmlands. Near the John Murphy Ranch on San Juan Road, just a few miles from the Alnas family camp, a carload of young men sprayed bullets into a Filipino bunkhouse. Fermin Tobera, 22, was shot through the heart and killed instantly.
Headlines in the Evening Pajaronian the following day declared: Filipino Murdered—Victim of Rioters” and “Wild Rioters Murder Filipino in Fourth Night of Mob Terror.”
Tobera was shot, the paper’s account declared, “while eleven other men living in the same quarters with him cowered, terror-stricken and half naked in a narrow clothes closet in the bunkhouse, while rioters sent several bullets through the house with revolvers and shotguns.”
It was a particularly cowardly brand of murder. Although a good deal of evidence was gathered which pointed directly at a suspect who fired the fatal shot, Edsel Frey, no one was ever prosecuted for the murder—or for any of the rioting. No one was ever held accountable.
Freddy arrived in Watsonville only months after the killing. “Them boys were jealous we with white girls,” Freddy recalled. “They hit the boys, use tear gas and guns. They make threats, but we stay.” Others, however, were not as hardy as the Alnas clan, and many Watsonville Filipinos scattered to other communities. But the white mobs were never far behind. There were race riots throughout the west coast and more killings, too, including in Los Banos and Salinas.
In spite of the prejudices they faced, Freddy and his father soon saved enough money to purchase a late-model Chevy sedan. Sometimes work on a particular farm would only take a few hours, leaving the field hands stranded and unemployed for the rest of the day. “With car,” says Freddy, “six guys, maybe more, can move around from field to field. Pretty crowded. You got to put your Army bags and blankets on the running boards, on the bumpers. Drive that way all the time.” One day they might be in King City, the next, back in Watsonville.
Freddy developed a pattern where he would work in the lettuce fields in the spring and early summer, then travel up to Alaska for four or five weeks of employment in the salmon canneries, and, finally, return to Stockton to harvest asparagus.
Given the often wretched conditions under which they worked, and the strong bonds developed in their ethnic communities, it was not surprising that Filipinos formed some of the most successful s in the history of California agriculture. Their first attempt was the Filipino Labor , founded in the early 1930s, followed later by the Filipino Agricultural Labor Association.
These organizations staged a number of important strikes—including the Salinas Lettuce Strikes of 1934 and 1936, and a major strike in the Brussels sprout fields of northern Santa Cruz County in 1960— and it was a group of Filipinos (not Hispanics, as is commonly thought) headed up by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, who initiated the legendary Delano Grape Strike of 1965, which first brought national attention to Cesar Chavez and his fledgling United Farm Workers’ Association.
Freddy was a participant in much of this labor history, including the notorious 1934 Salinas strike in which Filipinos joined mostly white members of the Vegetable Packers’ Association (VPA) in demanding higher wages from lettuce growers. The Filipinos were asking for a 15-cent-an-hour raise (from 30 to 45 cents), while VPA members were seeking nearly twice that much.
When the growers gave in to the demands of the VPA, the packers responded by turning their backs on the Filipinos, who were then subjected to vigilante attacks aimed at breaking their strike. Those strong-arm tactics proved successful, as Filipinos returned to the fields with a token five-cent-an-hour raise. “That pay still too low,” remembers Freddy. “White guys scare us into strike, threaten us with bombs, then break their word.”
Freddy continued to follow crops up and down California—peas in Pescadero, grapes in Delano, winter lettuce in the Imperial Valley. Then in 1942, world events pulled Freddy and his friends from the fields. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive proclamation which allowed Filipinos to enlist in the armed forces, and Freddy joined the Air Force’s 46th Fighting Squadron in Iwo Jima. While in Hawaii completing basic training, Freddy received his U.S. citizenship.
“I was very happy to be American citizen,” he recalled. “I was glad to go fight Japanese. They invaded the Philippines too. Kill many people.” In 1945 he was granted an honorable discharge as a sergeant.
After the war, Freddy returned to field work. He took a job as a cook on one of the Brussels sprout farms near Davenport, from where he journeyed as far east as New Mexico and Texas in the off-season. It was while picking lettuce near Albuquerque that Freddy contracted coccidioidomycosis, more commonly referred to as “valley fever,” a fungus which attaches itself to the lung. Spores of this fungus reside just below the surface of the soil and are disrupted during periods of cultivation. They reach their victims on particles of dust, leaving field workers especially susceptible to the disease.
The cure for valley fever at that time was lengthy and painful. Freddy spent 14 months in a San Francisco hospital recuperating. While bedridden, circulatory problems developed in his left knee. That condition resulted in four more operations, a permanently stiff leg, and, as he approached his seventies, the threat of amputation remained ever present.
But the life of Freddy Alnas was not, as they say, all work and no play. He never viewed himself as a victim, and would have been outraged at anyone who viewed him as such. To see his smile light up a room was to know that he was a man who enjoyed a good time, a few drinks perhaps, a night on the town. In his bedroom back then, there were photos of him on the dresser proudly escorting beautiful women. If you pressed him hard enough, he would confess that, yes, he was something of a “ladies’ man,” though like most Filipinos who came here in the aftermath of World War I, he never married. I always had the sense that he would have enjoyed a permanent woman in his life.
The great passion of Freddy’s youth, however, was not to be found in nightclubs. Cockfights were a central component of Filipino culture, a regular diversion from the day-to-day rigor of the fields. Huge crowds would gather on the ranches near the
Filipino bunkhouses in order to place bets and watch the fights. A five-inch blade was secured to the left leg of the fighting roosters, and they were placed in a small circular area where they fought until one of them was killed. “Guys bet plenty,” Freddy smiled. “Sometimes $400.”
Freddy owned a number of fighting cocks and developed a reputation as an excellent trainer. “His roosters were always top fighters,” remembered a friend. “That’s why we call him ‘Freddy Number One.’ I won lots of money betting on Freddy.”
Local law enforcement agencies began to crack down on the practice in the 1950s. After a few arrests, Freddy decided to give up the fights. “Some guy called me not too long ago,” Freddy smiled. “Ask me to come see fight. I say no. Don’t want to pay no more fines.”
Freddy spent most of his time in retirement fishing, gardening and cooking for his roommate and lifelong friend, Petacio “Pete” Balando. The majority of his other friends and cousins still lived in the old bachelor communities of San Juan Bautista, Watsonville and the north coast. Freddy always seemed to be delivering gifts of fish, vegetables, seaweed or sweet rice in one of these locales.
“If Freddy thinks you’re hungry,” said one of his neighbors, an African-American woman from Louisiana who arrived in Santa Cruz immediately after World War II, “he’s bound to get you something to eat. And there’s no one in their right mind who would turn him down. That man is a master in the kitchen.”
When Freddy officially retired in 1981, after more than 50 years of work in the fields and cookhouses, there was no celebration, no gold watch, no commendation to hang above his mantel. A bum leg and a bum lung were the tangible regards of his 50-year service.
“Do you know what a Filipino feels like in America?” Bulosan asked. “He is the loneliest thing on earth. There is much to be appreciated all about him, beauty, wealth, grandeur, power. But is he a part of these luxuries? He looks, poor man, through the fingers of his eyes. He is enchained, damnably, to his race, his heritage. He is betrayed.”
And that was at least half of the truth. The American Dream was never really Freddy’s to reach for; it was always beyond his grasp. His labor was good enough to keep him in America, but never enough to make him fully a part of it.
But if the plastic grandeur and the silicon luxuries were never his, Freddy was afforded other beauties. With all respect to Buloson, we should not confuse simplicity with poverty, nor convenience with wealth. If Freddy was ever bitter about his lot, he never showed it.
During an era in history when most of us punched into time clocks and, and, these days, plugged into electrical devices, Freddy’s life was guided by the coming and going of the tides, changes in wind patterns, ocean currents and seasons. He was freed, in many respects, by his labors, not enslaved by them, and that which many of us regularly overlook was likely to be a central part of his daily existence.
Freddy came to California in 1930, he told me, with every intention of returning to the Philippines—of returning with enough money to secure a comfortable life for himself and family. It never happened. He had returned to the land of his birth twice for short visits, once in 1945 and again in 1970, when he built his youngest sister a home on the family plot he left as a youth. During the 1980s, he told me, he no longer harbored any intentions of going home.
Then, in the early 1990s, after all of the articles and film stardom made him something of a local celebrity, I drove Freddy to the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto. He received fairly good news about his leg, though he was developing diabetic issues and had to take heart medications. On the way back he told me that he was thinking of returning to the Philippines for “a visit.”
I sensed exactly what he was thinking: he wanted to go home to die.
One morning about a year later, he pulled into our driveway, left us some fish, and said good-bye. He handed me an envelope with some papers and photographs in it, and asked for some copies of the film, Dollar a Day, 10¢ a Dance, which, by then, had played on television in the Philippines. I choked up, but for reasons that remain unclear to me, I didn’t want him to see my tears.
A few years later I received a phone call from a friend of Freddy’s family in San Juan Bautista. Freddy had died on Aug 1, 1997, at the age of 84. The family wanted me to handle some paper work for them. Sure, I said, of course. I felt the ocean wind blowing through my heart.
Excerpted with permission from “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,” by Geoffrey Dunn, to be published next year by the Capitola Book Company. Copyright 1983 and 2012 by the author.