Homage to Philip Vera Cruz: Revolutionary Worker and Filipino Labor Organizer

In a time of global crisis and fierce class war, in particular the renewed U.S. imperialist intervention in the Philippines, the example of the life and work of progressive Filipino worker and union leader, Philip Vera Cruz, has become more necessary and inspiring.

By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Posted by Bulatlat.com

On July 21, 1994, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of the State Legislature delivered a brief homage to Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1990), a founding member of the United Farm Workers, who died on June 10 at the age of ninety. Vera Cruz left a “legacy of commitment and dedication to social justice,” Rep. Roybal-Allard stated, which survives “in the work of grassroots organizers” everywhere. From his arrival in this country in 1926 as a “colonial ward,” neither alien nor citizen, from beleaguered Asian territory annexed by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War (1896-98) and the Filipino-American War (1899-1902), to his leadership (together with Larry Itliong) of the historic 1965 Delano Grape Strike, the course of Vera Cruz’s life followed a typical pattern—youthful initiation, crisis (peripeteia), discovery–memorably delineated in Carlos Bulosan’s classic life-history of the Filipino migrant worker, America Is in the Heart (1948).

In contrast to Carlos Bulosan, now part of the ethnic canon in Asian American Studies, Philip is almost unknown despite his being vice-president of the United Farm Workers from its founding up to 1977. His 1992 memoir, edited by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, has not really circulated as widely, despite or maybe because of its candid yet tempered criticism regarding the leadership style of Cesar Chavez. Chavez’s place in the pantheon of heroic Americans like Martin Luther King appears secure. But Philip’s name has remained in limbo. Except for a handful of Filipino academics, most Filipino Americans (now larger in numbers than the Chinese group), nor the Latinos whom he championed, I am sure, have never heard of Philip Vera Cruz. Nor will his compatriots spend time and energy to find out about Philip’s life and his significant contribution to the popular-democratic struggles of the working people in this country and around the world.

Before attempting an explanation why, I want to pose the general problem of how to make sense of the life of any individual, how to understand its distinctive physiognomy and meaning. Are all human lives alike? Yes and no. We all belong to the natural species of homo sapiens/faber, sharing common needs and aspirations. Praxis, our interaction with nature to produce and reproduce our social existence, unites all humans. However, we are all different because our lives are shaped by multiple contexts in history, contexts which are often variable and unpredictably changing, so that one needs the coordinates of the body, psyche, and society to map the trajectory of any single individual’s life-history. Writing on Luther and Gandhi, Erik Erikson focused on the identity crisis of individuals in the life-cycle framed by the structure of ideological world images. He noted in particular identity problems as omnipresent in the “mental baggage of generations of new Americans, who left their motherlands and fatherlands behind to merge their ancestral identities in the common one of self-made men… Migration means cruel survival in identity terms, too, for the very cataclysms in which millions perish open up new forms of identity to the survivors” (1975, 43). Philip was a survivor, indeed, but was he a self-made man in the cast of the Anglo Horatio Alger models?

Instead of following a psychohistorical approach, I want to engage the challenge of Philip’s testimonio as a constellation of personal events, events that can be read as an allegory of the Filipino community’s struggle to fashion subjects capable of fidelity to promises and commitments, and thus invested with self-respect and self-esteem. Winning reciprocity and recognition, Philip held himself accountable to his family, ethnic compatriots, and co-workers in terms of universal maxims and norms that suggest a collective project for the “good life” envisaged within and through the contingencies and risks of late capitalist society.

Today, given the debate on multiculturalism, the nature of identity is almost equivalent to cultural belonging, to genealogy and affiliation. In the culture wars in which everyone is engaged, whether one likes it or not, the politics of identity seems to have repudiated any universal standard or “metanarrative,” so that one’s life can only be situated within the frame of limited localities, specific zones of contact, particularities of time and place. I do not subscribe to the postmodernist doctrine of nominalist relativism—that only atomistic sense-data, not general concepts, can provide experimental knowledge. As Charles Sanders Peirce argued, consensual belief can be fixated at the end of any inquiry provided we agree that the reasons for any belief are fallible and open to modification. Whatever the position one takes in the dialectic of global and local, the singular and the universal, it is difficult to avoid the question of how to adjudicate the relative power of social/cultural and individual/psychic factors in the shaping of subaltern lives. Nietzsche and Derrida cannot so easily reject the Enlightenment legacy of doubt and critique without pulling the rug from under their feet; such legacy, on the other hand, has been put on trial by its victims—by feminists and by thinkers like Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Mariategui, C.L.R. James, Edward Said, and others.

I submit that the life-pattern of an individual like Philip Vera Cruz is unique and at the same time typical for a colonized subaltern in the U.S. Empire. But it is not idiosyncratic since he, like thousands of his compatriots from the Philippines (or other colonial possessions like Puerto Rico), was exposed to the same political, economic and ideological forces that shaped the lives of the majority of migrant workers in the U.S. in the last century. This occurred in varying degrees, with nuanced complexities, depending on their ethnic/racial, gender, class, and national positions at particular historical conjunctures. In the case of the Filipino subject—the “nationals” in the first three decades of the last century—the crucial context for understanding the ethos or subject-position of this group is none other than the violent suppression of the revolutionary struggle of Filipinos against colonial domination, first by Spain and then by the U.S. This coincided then with the beginning of segregation enforced by lynching mobs, the confinement of Native Americans to reservations, and mass war hysteria against the “Black Legend” (leyenda Negra) during the Spanish-American War. In this charged climate, nationality, racialized physiognomy, and social class marked all Filipinos, and continues to mark them, as stigmata difficult even for assimilationists to erase.

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