Chris Mensalvas: Daring to dream

Gene Viernes November 10, 2014 0
A scan of an illustration by Jeff Hanada that accompanied Gene Viernes’ story on Chris Mensalvas in May 1978.

A scan of an illustration by Jeff Hanada that accompanied Gene Viernes’ story on Chris Mensalvas in May 1978.

The following is a republication of a story by activist Gene Viernes that originally ran in the International Examiner in May 1978 (Volume 5, No. 4, Pages 6-7). Viernes tells the story of Chris Mensalvas, the real life inspiration for the character of Jose in Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart.

A little man supporting himself with a cane was speaking to a crowd in Hing Hay Park. It was May Day, International Workers Day, 1975. He was the same man who had spoken at a University of Washington Asian American Studies class, the 1976 Filipino Peoples Far West Convention labor workshop, and many other community events. This man’s name was Chris Mensalvas.

He captivated the audience with his projecting voice and unique style. He captivated them with what he had to say. He was only 5 feet tall, barely able to stand, but as sharp as any of the spectators in the crowd.

Chris would often tell stories of the cultural barriers the manongs faced when they first arrived in this country. He told of an encounter he and his friends had with an American restaurant menu written in English. What were these American foods: hash browns, sunnyside-up eggs, pork chops, mashed potatoes, meat loaf, and hotcakes. Chris and his friends chose hotcakes. For dinner, still afraid, still intimidated by the awesomeness of America, they chose hotcakes again. Then again, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Soon, Chris said, “the cook quit. Too many hotcakes.”

First Encounters

Chris told of the manongs’ first encounters with American hotels. They had slept on the floor the first night. In the morning, Chris had complained to the manager about the lack of beds. The manager laughed at the newly-arrived immigrants. The beds, the manager said, were wall beds, to be folded down when they were needed.

Young people will remember this man for his stores of hotcakes and beds.

To the manongs in the crowd he was more than the man who told those stories. To the manongs, he was an inspiration: one of their kababayan, one of their former leaders. He symbolized everything they had lived through and fought for.

But this man, Chris Mensalvas, died on April 11 of smoke inhalation suffered from a fire in his Downtower Apartments room.

He was born in San Manuel, Pangasinan on June 24, 1909. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Juan Mensalvas, named him Christopher Delarna Mensalvas. He was the third youngest son in a family of seven.

The Philippines, at the time, had just ended an eight year war: two years against the Spaniards and six years against Americans. The United States was the victor, the Philippines the spoils. The U.S. soon set up the Philippines as an American colony with American rulers, an American political system, and American schools.

Chris was raised in such a school. He attended Lingayen, the only school in the province of Pangasinan. He grew to hero-worship George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Patrick Henry. He dreamt of success and riches. He became an excellent student, possessing exceptional oratorical skills.

His father, a small landowner who farmed for a living, shared Chris’s dream of success. And America, at the time, seemed an answer to their mutual dream. Chris’s father sold a small plot of land and a caraboa. With the money, Chris boarded a steamship bound for America.

Chris found himself in the steerage section along with 300 other Filipinos, many of whom had been recruited as stoop labor for America’s farm factories. They were answering the call of contractors: “Let’s go to the U.S. Come on, there’s good life over there. You people have no good life here.” And the contractors were right; the Philippines had no stable economy and unemployment flourished. Unlimited job opportunities were available in America.

On their trip, they were fed “slop.” Occasionally they received fish. Of the 300 Filipinos riding in steerage, 30 died. The bodies of those who died were dumped overboard. Chris was one of the many survivors who experienced only seasickness.

Chris’s ship arrived in Seattle in 1927. A 30-day voyage. Once on the docks, they were met by labor contractors who led them to the fields of California and the Yakima Valley, or the canneries of Alaska. Chris worked as a stoop laborer for two years, patiently waiting for the chance to pursue his dream.

Chris enrolled at UCLA in Los Angeles. He maintained a part-time job as a “school boy.” This provided him room and board and some spending money.

Chris studied hard, hoping to become a lawyer, yet he found time to participate in community events. He founded the Pangasinan Association of Los Angeles and was its first President. He was also elected as president of a multi-organization sponsored “Jose Rizal Day.”

A scan of a photo of Chris Mensalvas that originally ran in May 1978. • File Photo

A scan of a photo of Chris Mensalvas that originally ran in May 1978. • File Photo

Hard Times

Hard times came upon the United States with the stock market collapse of 1929, the year Chris had started school. By 1932, he left school, not having enough money to pay for tuition.

He also found it futile to pursue a career in law.

In America, Filipinos could not practice law or medicine. Filipinos could not own land and, because of anti-miscegenation laws, Filipinos could not marry whites.

Disenchanted with the “American Dream,” Chris returned to the fields. He brought with him a new belief, a new dream that he had acquired in Los Angeles. While a student at UCLA, he had ventured into a bookstore owned by the International Workers of the World (IWW). He soon became a frequent customer, asking many questions, getting many answers.

He joined other Filipinos and formed the “Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights.” The committee was concerned with the denial of rights to fellow Filipinos. One right the committee targeted was the right for Filipinos to organize.

Times were rough for Filipinos. They had just survived a series of pre-Depression racist attacks: Wapato and Kent, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Stockton and Watsonville, California. Whites had attempted to rid America of its brown “invaders.”

The Depression hardships came in additional forms. Filipinos were forced to work for pennies an hour; they had to live collectively to survive. Many were eating in soup lines and sleeping in all-night movies. Victims of an exploitative society. Worse yet, victims of their own countrymen.

Some of their countrymen were contractors, the very same men who had met Filipinos on the docks, led them to the fields, paying them only a fraction of what they were supposed to get, and sometimes stealing even this.

Workers forced to work out of necessity were divided and, therefore, helpless. It was men like Chris Mensalvas who began the change. Using the knowledge he had acquired from the IWW and working in conjunction with the “Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights,” he began organizing in the fields. Mounting lettuce crates, he gave speeches on the need for organization, preaching the principle: “With unity comes strength.”

Carlos Bulosan

He called for meetings in deserted barns or anywhere else the owners weren’t apt to find them. It was during this period that Chris spent a lot of time with Carlos Bulosan, the famous Filipino poet and author. Together, they published a newspaper in Pismo Beach.

With their efforts and those of men like them, Filipino workers began forming unions. The unions were founded by men who had come to America to share a dream, but who only found poverty and racism.

The farmers responded. Chronicled in Carlos Bulosan’s book, America is in the Heart, are many examples of vigilante action against the Filipino farm workers. In the book, Chris Mensalvas was portrayed as Jose, experiencing many beatings, shootings and near death experiences. Chris carried a scar to his grave: his leg was amputated as he tried to evade a vigilante group.

Filipino workers responded by organizing even more workers, not only Filipinos, but workers of all races. The working class concept was not new to Filipino organizers.

Some of the unions practicing this concept were the Cannery Workers and Field Laborers locals on the West Coast —Seattle (Local 18257), Portland (Local 226), and San Francisco (Local 20565). These three American Federation of Labor Unions led the way toward re-affiliation with the more progressive international unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The American Federation of Labor still had racial and skill barriers which kept workers divided. The Cannery Workers and Field Laborers union saw the need to go beyond those barriers. They led the way in forming the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Between the three cannery workers locals and their 6,000 members, they provided up to one-half the funds to create UCAPAWA.

Another union leading the struggle for workers rights was the Filipino Labor Union Incorporated. It was chartered in 1934 and shortly thereafter re-affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

The Filipino Labor Union Incorporated led the way in creating 10 branches, with several thousand members. Together with white and Mexican workers unions, the Filipino Labor Union Incorporated led strike after strike. Sometimes the strikes were successful. Sometimes growers recruited strikebreakers and forced strikes out of town and the Filipino Labor Union Incorporated was forced to give in.

In 1936, during a Salinas shed packers strike, the Filipino Labor Union Inc. began favoring a policy of racial exclusion, opposing co-operation with other labor organizations.

Chris Mensalvas, Sr., the secretary, led a movement to oppose such a stand. When the leadership refused to listen, Chris and his backers split from the Filipino Labor Union Incorporated and formed the Filipino Labor Union. It was this union led by Chris, Sr., that joined CWFLU unions in forming UCAPAWA-CIO.

At the founding Congress held in Denver in 1937, Chris was appointed one of UCAPAWA’s staff organizers. His life for the next following years consisted of following the migratory path of farm workers up and down the West Coast. He organized the unorganized and assisted unions involved in strikes, negotiations or re-affiliations.

To Portland

During World War II Chris moved to Portland. His brother Julio had been President of Local 226. Chris found work in a Portland hospital, but he quit in 1944 to become the business agent of Local 226.

During the War the employer-employee relationship was confined to non-wage issues. The War Labor Board created no-strike, no-raise-in-wages restraints. It was also a time during which the United States was pushed toward equalizing conditions between minorities and whites. In the early 1940s, a Black man had taken his challenge of the anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court. He won. His victory led to the legalization of minority men marrying white women.

Chris remarried. (He had married a Mexican woman during the Depression. They had a son and, soon after, acquired a divorce.) He married a Caucasian, Margie Leitz and they gave birth to Patsy in January, 1945; Chris, Jr., in September, 1946; and Michael in August, 1947. Margie Mensalvas was ill during her pregnancy with Michael; and she lost her life shortly after giving birth to Michael.

The war ended and once again employers insisted on lowering wages. The conditions in the canneries remained exploitative.

With the return of the Filipino War veterans came a new pride, new expectations. For those returning to the life an Alaskero, reality shattered any expectations of being treated differently. Filipinos were paid lower wages, forced to do the harder jobs. They were Filipinos, and Filipinos road in steerage passage, while whites traveled first class.

SS Santa Cruz

It was on one such ship that Chris Mensalvas, Sr., again rose to lead workers against exploitation. The SS Santa Cruz had run aground, leaving 1,200 cannery workers in Alaska. They were already mad because of crowded conditions, filth, and inadequate living facilities. The workers began complaining.

When they finally boarded ship, they found their possessions had been ransacked, their valuables stolen. They formed a rank and file committee to take their complaint to the union.

The union was based in Seattle; the Portland and San Francisco locals had been phased out in an amalgamation move during the war. The Seattle rank and file committee led by Leo Lorenzo Mario Hermosa, and Chris Mensalvas presented its demands to the union in fall of 1946.

Fall turned to Winter, Winter to Spring. Nothing was done to satisfy the workers’ anger. At the first meeting of 1947, the growing conflict between the rank and file and leadership erupted. The vice-president shot at a member of the rank and file.

Luckily no one was hurt, but it made the workers more determined to gain justice. It also spelled the end to the reigning leadership. Soon after, the international officers intervened. The leadership was transferred to a temporary administrative committee.

McCarthy era

Dual unionism flourished for the next two years. To complicate the internal struggle taking place an external force began making its presence known. It was the McCarthy Era. Ernesto Mangaoang, the business agent of Local 7, was placed under arrest, charged with being a member of the Communist Party, which the government said advocated the overthrow of the government by force or violence.

Chris Mensalvas, editor of Local 7 News and also an admitted member of the Communist Party, was also arrested. Local 7 cannery workers stood behind their officers. Meanwhile, Local 7 re-affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, becoming Local 7-C ILWU. Chris Mensalvas was elected president in 1950. He remained president for the next nine years. Hindered by the Immigration and State Departments, Chris began plans to move to the Philippines.

(During this period he married Irene Mensalvas. She is presently residing in Equador.) In 1956, they sent their daughter, Patsy and son, Chris, to stay with Julio, now living in Binoloan, Pangasinan. Chris, warned of the possible danger in returning to the Philippines, instead moved to Hawai‘i. There he participated in the Longshoremen’s Union as business agent and staff organizer.

While in Hawai‘i, Chris sent for his kids and returned to Seattle. He settled down in Seattle’s Chinatown, running for various offices in the Cannery Workers Field Labor Union. He served as trustee as late as 1976.

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