Philip Vera Cruz: In Search of Defamiliarizing Narrative
Juan Jr. is a preeminent post-colonial
theorist and director of the
It was as if many of us Filipinos were living behind hidden identities for fear of associating with the realities of our lives, our real names, and therefore, our real identities… My life here was always an emergency. –PHILIP VERA CRUZ, A Personal History (1992)
On July 21, 1994, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of the California 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 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
Despite the defeat of the anti-imperialist insurgency, Filipinos who grew up in the first three decades of the last century absorbed the ideals and passion for independence which saturated the milieu and resonated up to the outbreak of World War II. Philip’s will to autonomy is displayed in his realistic attitude to religion—for him, “churches are only as good as what they do, not what they say” (2000, 80)—a practicable stance easily harmonized with his emphasis on what he calls traditional Filipino values of helpfulness, understanding, and loyalty.
The racialized subjugation
of the natives, the arguably genocidal extermination of over one million
For Bulosan, the personal
experience of peasant revolts brutally put down by the
With Philip Vera Cruz, this typical narrative acquired some telling if commonplace deviations. It was a narrative of emancipation, no doubt, but also a story of disenchantment and a caustic tale of reserved affirmation of the human comedy.
In broad outline, Philip’s
life conforms to Bulosan’s in that both were colonized subjects from the
Key to the difference lies
in Philip’s more independent temperament that was manifest early; for example,
he defied his parents in going to school despite their refusal or indifference.
Philip was able to pay for his passage from the sale of the last piece of
family property. His family did not go through the more arduous ordeals of
Bulosan’s clan in strife-torn Pangasinan province. Philip accepted the
beneficent claims of
It was not until Philip
It is also revealing that Philip did not display the more reflexive astuteness that Bulosan showed in his dealings with compatriots, perhaps due to the latter’s health problems and physical inability to really earn a living. Philip was able to manage and still save money to send home to his mother, a fulfillment of his vow to his father. Despite accommodation to city life, Philip expressed an appreciation not for the pastoral innocence of the countryside but for the independence of the farmer cultivating productive land, for the self-disciplined industriousness of “simple folk,” which contrasted sharply with the deceit and betrayal rampant in urban life. After leaving his birthplace, Saoang, Ilocos Sur, and “crossing the Pacific in search of a better life, wandering around the U.S. for many years,” Philip finally returned to a rural place resembling his natal village, though he also was painfully cognizant of the disparity: “Saoang was green, lush, tropical….and there was always the sight of the blue ocean that contrasted so beautifully with the rolling green foothills that came down almost to the water, whereas Delano is flat, hot but dry, with almost no green vegetation except what’s planted on the farms, and no bodies of water” (2000, 7).
Philip celebrated the
“Saong tradition of migrant work” in the 1940s when the New Deal was being
tested in factories and fields. Despite his direct acquaintance with racism,
Philip never showed any tendency to chauvinist exclusivism; he acknowledged the
influence of his Anglo friend Bill Berg from New York—Philip would talk to
Filipinos about how “white people had also fought for freedom and are also
revolutionaries, that the minority in this country cannot fully succeed without
the help of all freedom fighters, whaever the color of their skin” (2000, 23).
After the victory over fascist
One of the major events
that produced a decisive swerve in Philip’s life, even if not consciously
recognized in words, took place in his witnessing the 1948
Philip’s education materialized in the school of arduous labor in households, restaurants, factory and field, and in his solidarity meditations. Personal witnessing of farmworker organizing, as well as the testimony of actual participants in the struggle for humane treatment, helped shape Philip’s trust in the competence and sustainable strength of the organized masses to influence the course of their lives, even to the point of converting their passive resignation into active self-determination. Before touching on Philip’s decision to resign from the UFW as a critique of Chavez’s top-down style, I want to introduce the two aspects of identity, the idem and ipse identity, theorized by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, as pivotal elements in the construction of an ethnic autobiography.
So far, what I have
reviewed are the events of Philip’s development as reflexive protagonist of his
adventure in the
The practice of belonging
implies accountability. We have seen Philip prove his faithfulness to his
father and to his family by sharing his hard-won wages, denying himself the
opportunity for an education or even for a relatively comfortable life. He has
in effect been fulfilling an unspoken promise to maintain his organic linkage
with the community. This is itself a mark of character as well as a sign of
self-hood, although the practice of helping the family back home is shared by
the majority of Filipino workers in one degree or another. Another sub-cultural
characteristic of Philip’s generation is what he calls pride, the refusal or
failure to convey the forbidding reality of their lives to their parents and
relatives back home. Everyone in the colony believed in
"I couldn’t tell them some of the truths about
my life here because I wanted to make them believe that
For the most part, Philip
never dwelt at length or in depth on the illusions most colonials cherished
We can speculate then that
Philip’s narrative of his life is an attempt to explain his character, the
habitus of the self shared with his ethnic group. But what distinguishes Philip
from the others, and in what way is this selfhood (ipse), a departure from the
typical paradigm of the immigrant fable of success in
Philip’s critique of
Chavez’s authoritarian style is nothing new, as Frank Bardache (1993), Rodolfo
Acuna (1988), and others have elaborated on this on various occasions.
Qualified by profuse praise of Chavez’s charismatic stature and his
self-sacrificing devotion to the welfare of the farm workers, Philip’s
objection to Chavez’s top-down management was long suppressed for the sake of
the public image of UFW unity. However, the struggle for popular democracy in
This crisis is significant for configuring Philip’s narrative because it ushered the rupture, the ethical choice, that defined his character from idem-sameness to ipse-selfhood: his opposition to the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines coincided with a national upsurge of radicalism among Filipino-Americans, in particular the second or third-generation youth, who were mobilized in the late sixties and seventies by the civil-rights and anti-war campaigns. This is the youth that he appeals to at the end, his audience, his hope for a new future. No such turning-point can be found in the early stages of Philip’s life that equals this episode in intensity and resonance. Patient and forgiving, self-effacing to the point of seeming to be fatalistic or indifferent, Philip finally disrupted postcolonial inertia and connected his present with other moments in his life when he rebelled, contradicted abusive authority, and tried to help sustain a community of honest, dignified, morally capable citizens of equal status.
In the section of his
autobiography, “The movement must go beyond its leaders,” Philip opposed the irrational
cult of a leader and the suppression of criticism which deprived union members
of “their right to reason for themselves.” Capability for moral choice needs to
be actualized by democratic public institutions such as unions, etc.
Notwithstanding the praise of Chavez by Peter Mathiessen, the biographers
Richard Griswold del Castillo, Jacques Levy, Joan London, John Gregory Dunne,
and others, Philip’s reservation may be explained by his identification with
the plight of his compatriot Larry Itliong who initiated the
Truth, in Philip’s eyes,
concerned principles, not personalities. Although he resigned from the union after
he publicly distanced himself from Chavez’s support of the Marcos dictatorship,
Philip remained supportive of the UFW and the entire unionizing movement.
Although he bewailed the fact that he sacrificed too much in his struggle to
survive (a duty to support his family in the
The narrative climaxes with an invocation to his successors, the youthful workers whose representatives here may be the editors, Scharlin and Villanueva. Philip’s message to the young generation in whom rests the future of any country clearly serves as the leitmotif of his chronicle: “The success of any positive changes in this country depends on the strength of the workers and the organizations that hold the workers together are the unions…. Nothing will really change in this country without the total support of the working class” (2000, 154). He was seventy three when he chose the popular, democratic resistance against the right-wing Marcos dictatorship over Chavez’s open support for it, a stand that also confirmed his internationalist, progressive spirit of opposing capitalism as a system whose destructive exploitative logic was the lesson and truth that Philip wanted to impart by recording his life.
In retrospect, Philip’s life is in search of a narrative scheme that would contradict if not interrupt the commodified story of immigrant success, a narrative that would capture what Sartre calls (with reference to Kierkegaard) “the singular universal” (1974, 141). It would be a narrative that would assume the world-historical objectivity of human character but also recognize the active subject who fills the “holes of history” and opens up the space for global transformation. Such is the lesson I find from studying the autobiography of Philip Vera Cruz, a revolutionary Filipino worker, who replied to the perennial question we often hear addressed to us, ourselves as others: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” He couldn’t—until he could account for why he stayed and fought.
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Levy, Jacques. 1975. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1974. Between Existentialism and Marxism.
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Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers