Why you should care
Because in the 1930s, a group of Filipino laborers showed how looking fine fought oppression.
The flyest guy in the club usually boasts the sexiest style and smoothest moves. But for Filipino migrant workers in the 1930s, suiting up and getting down meant more than looking good; swag was a form of subversion.
After a long day of toiling in the fields, mostly in California, Filipino migrant workers would retire to so-called taxi dance halls, where mostly white women worked as dancer partners for hire. Filipinos and other immigrant workers dressed to the nines and bought their tickets for 10 cents each. Like a taxi ride, each dance came at a price: one ticket, plus tip, usually a drink — or sometimes a pretend marriage proposal.
These manongs arrived in the U.S. as part of a wave of about 500,000 Filipinos — mostly men — who immigrated in the 1920s and 1930s. They labored in the fields for up to ten hours a day at only a few cents an hour. They couldn’t own property or marry.With their snazzy suits and fancy footwork, Filipino migrant workers, or manongs, resisted the stereotype of the poor, sweaty laborer and transformed into suave, successful Don Juans who could woo any woman they desired. They challenged racist laws that forbade their contact with white women by dancing with them and winning their affections — sparking resentment, even violence, among white men.
Taxi dancers admired the manongs for their “splendid dancing” and “dazzling suits.”
Dance halls offered Filipinos an escape from hot fields and cramped shacks. Women — mostly white, occasionally Mexican and rarely Filipina — lined up against one wall, dressed in tight evening gowns. Manongs often preferred white (especially blond) dancers, lavishing their favorites with cash, jewelry and other gifts. The dancers tended to be 15- to 28-year-old immigrants from Poland, Sweden and other European countries. Although some were runaways, many were their families’ sole breadwinners, often because their parents had separated.
But the dancers admired the manongs for not only their handsome fees, but also their “splendid dancing” and “dazzling suits,” wrote Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, an associate professor of Asian American studies at UCLA.
And the garb … only the finest, most expensive American suit: the McIntosh. Its padded shoulders and wide lapels transformed them from “overworked, exploited laborers to symbols of sensuality, style and pleasure,” as Linda Maram, professor of Asian American studies at CSU Long Beach, tells it in . Their perfectly polished shoes winked and flashed in the light as they shimmied to the lindy and jitterbug. In her memoir, Confessions of a Taxi Dancer, Jeanne de La Moreau recalled one Filipino nicknamed “God’s Gift to Taxi Dancers.”
He gives them silk underwear and makes them pregnant and crowds whites out of jobs in the bargain.
But white men were less than thrilled about their “little brown brothers” mingling with white women. Labor rivalries only added fuel to their already smoldering resentment; white men often refused to do the grueling work that Filipinos did for little pay. Negative press didn’t help, either. In December 1929, police found two young white girls when they raided Filipino laborer Perfecto Bandalan’s room in Watsonville, California. Local papers constantly reported on the incident, as well as a series of Filipino run-ins with the law, including brawls over women and sexual assault.
“The worst part … is [the Filipinos] mixing with young white girls,” Judge D.W. Rohrback told the Watsonville Evening Pajaronian. “He gives them silk underwear and makes them pregnant and crowds whites out of jobs in the bargain.”
In January came a bold reply to those charges, in the form of 10,000 copies of a circular written by a Filipino editor named David P. De Tagle.The Torch justified Filipinos’ seduction of white girls as “the Law of Nature,” according to an article by Richard Meynell.* Events took a brutal turn. Whites formed Filipino “hunting parties” of up to a hundred men and stormed the newly opened Palm Beach taxi dance hall. They dragged Filipinos out of their homes, whipping and beating them and hurling them off the Pajaro River Bridge. Early the next morning, they fired bullets into a bunkhouse — fatally shooting manong Fermin Tobera through the heart.
They dragged Filipinos out of their homes, whipping and beating them and hurling them off the Pajaro River Bridge.
The violence spread to San Jose and San Francisco. An explosion rocked a Filipino club in Stockton, while masked men warned a farmer in Gilroy to discharge his Filipino workers. Protests also erupted in the Philippines, whose resident commissioner spoke before Congress.
Although many Filipinos fled the U.S., most stayed behind, leading a successful strike in the Salinas, California, lettuce fields seven months later. Still, Filipino immigration plummeted after the Watsonville riots, and farmers increasingly replaced manongs with Mexicans.
Taxi dance halls had their own problems; laced in sexism, they were often compared to brothels. Regardless, the manongs used them to subvert racist ideologies that saw them as powerless, asexual laborers in dingy overalls, propelling them to the global stage. For them, even a night of strutting their stuff was a form of resistance.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article did not adequately credit a source.