Utang na loob,’ an expression used in the Filipino community, can be loosely translated to a debt of gratitude that one owes to those who have done a deeply impactful favor. 

Watsonville is in the Heart’s (WIITH) digital archive seeks to repay this debt of gratitude to the Manong generation, the first generation of predominantly male Filipino immigrants that came to California, in the Pajaro Valley. Through their labor, these men were instrumental in getting the Pajaro Valley agricultural industry off the ground during the 1920s and 1930s after the American annexation of the Philippines

The WIITH initiative began in collaboration with the Tobera Project, a Watsonville-based organization focused on honoring and celebrating the contributions of the Filipino community in Watsonville, and UC Santa Cruz Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts divisions. Through the Tobera Project and university efforts, WIITH connects many local Filipino families and documents their heritage by capturing oral histories, preserving artifacts, and digitizing photos. Dioscoro “Roy” Recio, founder of the Tobera Project, reiterates the sentiment of ‘utang na loob’ through the initiative. 

“It’s our give-back to [the Manong generation] to make sure that their sacrifices aren’t in vain, and they’re preserved and honored,” said Recio.

In January 1930, tension between the white population of Watsonville and the Manong laborers reached a boiling point. A mob of armed white men enacted a 5-day streak of violence against the immigrants. The white men, angered over the laborers ‘taking their jobs’ and the young Filipino men’s popularity with the white women of the town, rioted. During the violence, many were injured, and Fermin Tobera, one of the workers, was killed. The Tobera Project was later created in remembrance of him.

Along the Central Coast during the Great Depression, Filipino migrant farmworkers of the Manong generation toiled in the fields of the Pajaro Valley under highly exploitative conditions. Faced with long grueling workdays, low wages, and racism, they worked to support not only themselves but also their families, both in California and in the Philippines.

Despite their work being integral to California’s economy and society, Filipino history has been largely excluded from mainstream American history. This marginalization was something Recio recognized as a glaring threat to the historical preservation of the Manong generation and Filipino culture within the Central Coast. Raised in Watsonville, Recio started the Tobera Project as a way to honor his parents through collaboration with his community to safeguard Filipino heritage in California. 

PhD History student Meleia Simon-Reynolds, the Co-Director of WIITH, notes that not only do these research efforts help grow the archive, but they also provide a service to the families by helping to uncover and document their own family history. 

“The main thing is that we hope that [the archive material] is preserved long-term,” Simon-Reynolds said. “[The families] want these items that they’ve had in their possession to have long lives after they’ve passed on. ” 

Katrina Pagaduan, an undergraduate researcher with WIITH, showing letters from Filipino families who were separated when the young men left the Philippines to work in America.

The research methods of WIITH focus on challenging the top-down relations of power frequently found in university archival processes that often exploit the subjects of research. Working with the Tobera Project and connecting with community members through the organization was a key factor in curating the archive. Simon-Reynolds explains that community-based outsourcing requires fostering interpersonal respect with the local Filipino community in order to combat fears of institutional mistreatment. 

“When you do community-engaged research, there’s always kind of a barrier because you’re an outsider to the community, and you need to focus on building trust and relationships,” Simon-Reynolds explained.

The community relationships extend not only into Watsonville, but also here on campus. The initiative has plans to hold an exhibition in 2024 featuring not only pieces from the archive, but also student artwork submitted by members of the Filipino population at UCSC. 

UCSC has an active Filipino student community, who have been organizing classes and forming clubs surrounding their history and culture. On the faculty side, professors in the Humanities department specializing in Filipino history and culture have been instrumental in uplifting the community both on and off campus.

Assistant Professor of History Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez, a leading researcher with WIITH, shares her motivation to increase the visibility of the Filipino community and other local history projects through inquiry. 

“I’m really hoping that this work […] continues to stimulate the campus’ investment in community archives and community history,” Gutierrez said. 

Attendees viewing Markus Faye-Portacio’s gallery on Filipino fashion. He and Katrina Pagaduan (see other photo) each assembled collections from the archive to display at the launch event.

As WIITH works to uplift the stories of the Manong generation that paved the way in California, the initiative will expand beyond archival work. WIITH is currently partnering with Pajaro Valley Unified School District on a new K-12 curriculum on Filipino-American history to fulfill the recently introduced ethnic studies requirement. 

Despite the significant effort put into the initiative already, Recio acknowledges that there is much work still to be done to repay the debt, but the Tobera Project and WIITH are committed to continuing the fight for increased visibility of the Filipino community. 

“We’re not only here, but we’re a thriving part of the American fabric, whether you like it or not,” said Recio. “We’ve contributed. We have persevered in the struggle of strife. And we’re at your doorstep.”