Labor of love: Marisssa Aroy interviews her grandmother at the ranch they rented to the UFW. (Photo by Niall McKay)

Marissa Aroy Unearths Forgotten California history

Michael Fox November 3, 2009

The trailer for The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW opens with the smooth, lush strains of a Nat King Cole song, hardly the vibe one anticipates from a historical doc about rural California, immigration, organized labor and racism. Next-generation filmmaker Marissa Aroy may have a non-conformist streak, but the tune isn’t a non sequitur. Her film excavates the history and contributions of Filipino farmworkers in the Golden State since the 1920s, and the song happens to be a Filipino standard. "There’s a connection between the U.S. and the Philippines that not a lot of people know about—the colonial relationship—and having Nat King Cole brings together the ties of the two countries in an unusual way," Aroy says.

A Boston native who earned her Master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley and teaches digital filmmaking at Berkeley City College, Aroy produced the half-hour doc Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland, which aired nationally on PBS. (The film enjoys special status among Filipino Americans, Aroy jokes, largely because of the paucity of films on the Filipino American experience.) She readily acknowledges that one of her central challenges is broadening the appeal of The Delano Manongs beyond the core audience. One hurdle is its (working) title, a recognized term of respect in the community, as certified by the film’s 600 Facebook friends, that doesn’t resonate with the broader population. The presence of one household name in particular will help, though.

"Cesar Chavez was more of a civil rights leader," the East Bay filmmaker notes. "The leaders of the Filipino movement—Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco—were more interested in defending the workers that were in the fields. It was less about a social movement and more about getting a wage increase, getting water, getting toilets, all very practical things. People don’t realize that the [1965 grape] strike was really instigated by the Filipinos. They had a long history of instigating and forming labor unions up and down the West Coast."

The roots of that activism date to the 1920s, when Filipinos came to California to pick crops. "Most of the men were single and they had this notion, having had American teachers in the Philippines, that they would be accepted as Americans," Aroy relates. "They had the notion that they were free to see anyone because there were very few Filipino women who could immigrate. They either turned to prostitutes or women of other races. This caused the greatest amount of racial tension. In the ‘30s it was about competition for jobs, but it was also that Filipinos had the audacity to date white women."

Without wives or children to support, the Filipino workers sent money home that was used to educate the generation that arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s with nursing and engineering degrees. This was the generation of Aroy’s parents, and their immigrant experience, needless to say, differed greatly from their parents’.

"My whole goal is for Filipino Americans to see what happened to these farmworkers, and how they fought for their rights," Aroy declares. "Even now, the Filipinos are the third largest Asian group in the U.S., but they’re sort of invisible. There’s no teeth, no strength to them politically. There was a time when Filipinos were up in arms here; they realized they were being treated as second-class citizens, they couldn’t own property or marry who they wanted to."

Aroy’s grandfather was a sugarcane worker (sakada) in Hawaii who came through San Francisco en route to Stockton, where he worked in the asparagus fields. He settled in Delano, where he eventually rented is farm to Chavez and the UFW before they had their own land and headquarters. It’s a compelling saga, but may not make it into the final film.

"We’re sort of in the middle of figuring that out," Aroy says candidly. "We tried to put in my family’s personal history, but it took the spotlight away from the Filipino leaders who were in the UFW. My grandfather was very colorful but not very socially acceptable—he had a bar that had illegal gambling, he was paying off the sheriff, he [rented] housing behind the bar where I was told prostitutes would go. Whether he was part of that or not, I don’t know. He has sort of a sordid past. It’s all interesting, but it takes away from the UFW story."

Aroy, who makes a cameo appearance in husband Niall McKay’s personal doc The Bass Player: A Song For Dad (screened last month in the Mill Valley Film Festival), has received development grants for The Delano Manongs from ITVS and the California Council for the Humanities, production grants from the Pacific Pioneer Fund and CCH Humanities, and a completion grant from the Center for Asian American Media. She aims to finish in 2010, although she doesn’t have a funder-imposed deadline. She’s located some splendid archival footage but is mulling some considerably more ambitious elements.

"Dorothea Lange did take photos, which we used in Little Manila and I’m hoping to use more,"Aroy says. "The question is, how do you tell the story without zooming in on one photo for three minutes? I can probably say for people younger than me that it’s very boring. I originally wanted to have animation, and musical performances tracing the arc from the ‘30s on up to the ‘60s. It all has to do with budget. Do we just finish it with the money we have, or do we write for more grants and search for money to do some of the fancy things we’d like to do in postproduction?"

Ah, the eternal dilemma. For more information about the project and to view the trailer, visit

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