LOS ANGELES—When R. Bong Vergara, a UCLA junior, heard that Philip Vera Cruz had died, he had trouble accepting the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “He was the only Pilipino role model I knew who the public respected.”
For many other UCLA students who knew him, Vera Cruz’s death on June 10 touched them deeply. This former vice president of the United Farm Workers union embodied the story of the first wave of Filipino immigrants—the manongs. He helped initiate the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 that led to the formation of the union, and he had continued to inspire youth, especially young Filipinos. Today, many more young adults are learning about his life as his autobiography is increasingly found on the reading lists of Asian American studies departments.
At UCLA, many students were fortunate enough to have met and spoken with him. They were taken by his passion for social justice, his humility and dedication in fighting for workers’ rights. He personalized Asian American history for many of them.
“When I met him, history became real for me,” said UCLA senior Serrano, a member of the Committee for Pilipino Studies. “When I first started learning about Asian American history, I had a hard time connecting with it. Now I wish I had learned about him and the manongs when I was younger.”
For Filipino students like Vergara, Vera Cruz provided a history that represented the struggles of their own community. “He serves as a key to understanding resistance in the Filipino American community. By looking at his individual experiences, we are able to get an idea of how the first-generation immigrants dealt with racism and discrimination.”
Filipino American students feel a strong sense of pride in Vera Cruz’s achievements. His story enables many to understand the struggle of their own parents and grandparents.
“Both my grandfathers were farmworkers, and my father currently is a farmworker, so what Philip Vera Cruz advocated touches me very deeply,” said UCLA senior Dawn Mabalon.
Sarah Chee, a UCLA junior and leader of Korean American United Students for Education and Service, added that Vera Cruz’ life speaks to all Asian American students. “He is a symbol of our history of resistance and fighting spirit.”
Not only did he help instill pride, but his life taught students many lessons. His work within the UFW—where Filipinos fought side-by-side with Mexicans for workers’ rights—points to the importance of coalition-building. He also emphasized that all struggles were interconnected.
“We found this same spirit during the Chicano Studies movement at UCLA,” said Chee. In spring 1993, Asian American students joined with Chicano students to fight for a Chicano studies department.
Most students remember his words concerning leadership. “Leadership is only incidental to the movement,” Vera Cruz once wrote. “It is the movement that is the most important thing.” He further expounded on the importance of building an ideological foundation for the movement. Vera Cruz exemplified his belief that humility was the basic quality for a leader.
“He taught us that one leader doesn’t make up the movement,” said Lauren Seng, a UCLA senior and leader of Concerned Asian Pacific Student for Action. “His type of leadership did not emphasize the high status and prestige of a professional. He was simple and humble. He was with the people.”
Jay Mendoza, a UCLA graduate student in ethnomusicology, added that Vera Cruz’s life helped him realize that leaders are always all around us. “His humanity taught me that we sometimes forget to look at our friends as leaders.”
It was Vera Cruz’s humility and his sincere commitment to the students that was most memorable. Since his resignation from the UFW in the late 1970s, he had visited many campuses to educate students and to talk to them about political struggle. Vergara recalled one conversation in which Vera Cruz told him: “You’re talking to me because you’re interested in me, but I’m talking to you because I’m interested in you.” Vergara recalled that Vera Cruz believed student organizing to be very important. In fact, Vera Cruz once wrote: “Only if more youth can get involved in more issues like social justice, they would form a golden foundation for the struggle to improve peoples’ lives.”
Not only has Vera Cruz’s life present many clear lessons, it has also raised many questions for students. Many note sadly that accounts about his life are still absent from mainstream textbooks.
“There is historical amnesia when it comes to Philip Vera Cruz,” said Nate Santa Maria, a UCLA graduate student in Asian American Studies. “When people hear about the UFW, they think Ceaser Chavez, not Philip Vera Cruz. Philip Vera Cruz and the Pilipinos played a strong role in the formation of the UFW.”
Students believe his marginalization reflects the general invisiblity of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the mainstream. Despite this problem, Filipino and Asian American students treasure his legacy.
Santa Maria speaks for many when he emphasized: “His legacy exists not in memory but in the actions of the many youth inspired by his life.”