In the Heat of the Night: The Exeter and Watsonville Riots 1929-1930

For some Filipino old-timers, today’s headlines seem chillingly familiar: popular demands to deny benefits to illegal immigrants, efforts in Congress to limit the number of legal immigrants entering this country, a report released this year showing that violence against Asians has risen. It’s as if the specter of Justice of the Peace D. W. Rohrback of Pajaro, California has returned to haunt them.

Sixty-five years ago, anti-Filipino violence exploded in the farmlands of California. It began in the little town of Exeter, which lies in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, 40 miles southeast of Fresno. The sparks set off another conflagration in Watsonville, (in Pajaro Valley) near Monterey. The chain of events led to the formal promise of independence for the Philippines and the formation of the militant Filipino unions of the 1930s.

Before Exeter, however, the first overt attacks against Filipinos had already taken place in the apple orchards of the Yakima and Wenatchee Valleys of Washington state in 1928, with hate-driven violence exploding again in May 1930 in the White River Valley south of Seattle and again in Wapatao in 1934. (Scattered attacks against Filipinos in Washington actually continued into the 1940s.) Filipinos were a natural target in a depressed economic landscape.

 Filipinos pose before the ruins of their bombed-out clubhouse in Stockton, California in 1930. (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Filipinos pose before the ruins of their bombed-out clubhouse in Stockton, California in 1930. (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Exeter Incident

Asian labor was indispensable to the ranchers and farmers of California, but white workers blamed the Chinese and Japanese for undermining their wages. So the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed to exclude Asians from the United States. However, Filipinos could not be excluded because they were from an American territory, and they were recruited to fill the void left by the excluded Chinese and Japanese. By 1929 Filipinos were the major migrant labor group in the fields of the Central Valley. They had also become the new target of white hostility, even though many white workers often refused to do the work for which Filipinos were hired.

In Exeter, townspeople prepared for an autumn festival in October 1929 to celebrate the successful harvest of Thompson grapes and other crops. Weeks before the festivities, the 200 Filipino farm workers in town had been harassed by white youths who shoved them off the sidewalks, threw stones at them and in general tried to make them leave. The Filipinos in town were blamed for keeping wages low or taking jobs away from whites.

There were several versions of what precipitated the major outbreak of violence on October 24. One version blames a white truck driver for teasing a Filipino man who responded violently to the insult. Another version has locals getting incensed over the attention Filipinos were giving white women. In any case, an unidentified Filipino felt that his “honor” had been injured and he attacked Adolph Borgman and Harry Latham with a knife. Although the wounds were minor, the two appeared more seriously injured at the time of the incident.

A mob of more than 300 men quickly formed, pursued the Filipino attacker to the E. J. Firebaugh ranch and set fire to the barn where the Filipinos workers were living. Innocent Filipinos were attacked and forced to flee to Visalia, Tulare and Fresno for safety. Ralph H. Woodward and Alva Hoskins were arrested for setting fire to the Firebaugh barn.

The simple case of battery became a major international incident. Newspapers throughout the United States and the world discussed the “California disease” of racial discrimination. On October 29, The New York Times reported that the Insular House of Representatives in Manila had passed a resolution protesting the discrimination of Filipinos in America. The Exeter incident brought the issue of Philippine independence to broader public attention.


Judge Rohrback said that although he did not advocate violence, he felt that the United States should give the Filipinos their liberty and then send them home so that white people who inherited this country could live in peace.

Rohrback’s Rhetoric

Meanwhile, residents of the Pajaro Valley area had noticed that more and more Filipinos were coming in to help harvest iceberg lettuce and staying around to harvest fruits in the fall. Filipinos had begun arriving in the area in early 1919. By 1924 farmworkers completing their three year contracts in Hawaii were moving to the mainland. In Hawaii the men had been making around $1.25 a day while in California they earned up to $4.00 a day. The sight of these men being free with their money and pursuing the companionship of white women disturbed Justice of the Peace D. W. Rohrback of Pajaro in particular.

On January 7, 1930 the North Monterey County Chamber of Commerce met to discuss the “Filipino problem” in Pajaro Valley. Rohrback said the Chamber’s investigation of the economic impact of Filipinos on the white workers indicated the beginning of a situation that “will eventually lead to the exclusion of the Filipino or the deterioration of the white race in the state of California.”

According to the Three Stars, a Stockton-based Filipino newspaper, Rohrback stated that Filipinos, “but ten years removed from the bolo and breechcloth,” were landing along the California coast by the boatload. Anytime a boatload of Filipinos arrived many white men and women were thrown out of work. Rohrback said that “for a wage that a white man cannot exist on, the Filipinos will take the job and, through the clannish, low standard of housing and feeding practiced among them, will soon be clothed, and strutting about like a peacock and endeavoring to attract the eyes of the young American and Mexican girls.”

He claimed that “15 Filipinos will live in a room or two, sleeping on the floor and contenting themselves with squatting on the floors and eating fish and rice. The same group will form a club and buy in partnership a classy automobile and attired like Solomon in all his glory, will roll along the highways.”

In a statement published in the Salinas Index-Journal on January 8, Judge Rohrback said that although he did not advocate violence, he felt that the United States should give the Filipinos their liberty and then send them home so that white people who inherited this country could live in peace.

 Filipinos became magnets of racial hostility as the economy got worse.  (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Filipinos became magnets of racial hostility as the economy got worse. (Source: Filipino American National Historical Society)

Filipinos Roar Back

Filipinos in nearby Salinas answered Rohrback’s charges in a four-page pamphlet called The Torch. They pointed out that there were no laws barring the coming of Filipinos to America. They asked rhetorically, “If the Filipino had just ‘emerged’ from ‘bolo and breechcloth’ shouldn’t Americans be proud of these respectful citizens? And if the Filipinos were forced to live in ‘bad housing’ or were ‘unhealthy’, then the proper authorities should be notified to help the Filipinos.” The pamphlet also pointed out that instead of sending their money home to the Philippines, the Filipino laborers supported the local economy when they shopped for clothing or purchased new cars from local stores.

The heated rhetoric quickly went from the printed word to the raised fists of white youths and the defiant gestures of Filipinos to assert their right to be in Pajaro.

Pajaro is a small town lying along the coastal plain of Northern Monterey and Southern Santa Cruz counties. A bridge over the Pajaro river connects it with the town of Watsonville in Santa Cruz County. On January 11 the Paddon brothers rented their summer resort home in Palm Beach, about five miles west of Watsonville, to The Monterey Bay Filipino Club headed by Andres Antenor Cruz. The club held dances to raise funds for their activities. Since Filipinas were not available, Cruz had invited a certain Mrs. Williams to provide white women from Guadalupe (Santa Barbara County) to serve as dance hostesses.

On January 19 several carloads of local youths tried to enter the club but were turned away by security guards. The Paddons asked the local sheriff and the district attorney for protection for their property and the Filipinos, who were being dogged by roving bands of white thugs. But the requests were ignored. The whites took the inaction of the authorities for covert approval of their activities against the Filipinos.


On January 22, at the Murphy Ranch located four miles east of Pajaro, several carloads of whites fired shots into the bunkhouse where Filipinos were sleeping. As soon as the first shots were fired, the Filipinos dropped to the floor or hid in closets. Fermin Tobera, 22, fell dead with a bullet through his heart.

Watsonville Riot

Roving gangs of whites began attacking Filipinos in the streets of Watsonville and Pajaro. Each evening, an angry crowd of whites tried to enter the Filipino club but were turned away. On January 21, the authorities finally took action when armed confrontation between Filipinos and the white mob became imminent. Violence was averted with the arrival of the sheriff with armed deputies.

The white mob quickly left Palm Beach but soon spread out throughout the valley, attacking Filipino labor camps. On January 22, at the Murphy Ranch located four miles east of Pajaro, several carloads of whites fired shots into the bunkhouse where Filipinos were sleeping. As soon as the first shots were fired, the Filipinos dropped to the floor or hid in closets. Fermin Tobera, 22, fell dead with a bullet through his heart.

“The Watsonville Riot” became another international incident. Tobera came to symbolize American intolerance and the desire of Filipinos for their independence. In the Philippines, Sunday, February 2 was observed as “humiliation day” in memory of Tobera. When his body arrived in Manila, it was accorded a state funeral.

The shocked authorities quickly took steps to bring the situation under control. A 6:00 p.m. curfew was imposed and the streets of both Pajaro and Watsonville were patrolled by deputies to prevent further anti-Filipino demonstrations. By the end of February, the streets were safe for Filipinos again. However, as in August when white workers armed with clubs chased them through the streets, things remained tense.

Eight youths, members of very prominent families in the Pajaro Valley, were arrested for the murder of Tobera and tried in Rohrback’s court. They were found guilty and sentenced by the Monterey Superior Court to two years in prison. However, the sentences were quickly suspended. Most white researchers of the period claimed race was not a factor in the attacks on Filipinos.

In the weeks following the Watsonville Riot, in the month of January 1930, several other incidents took place:

San Francisco: Two Filipinos were attacked by a gang of white men who escaped before the police arrived. The two were arrested for disturbing the peace.

San Jose: Four Filipinos who defended themselves when they were attacked on a city street were convicted of stabbing a white man.

Stockton: The clubhouse of the Filipino Federation of America was bombed. The bombing was followed by isolated street fights.

From January 1930 through 1941 “night riders,” similar to the Ku Klux Klan, harassed Filipinos. In September 1934, “vigilantes” tried to force Filipinos to leave the town of Turlock.

Prior to October 1929 the debate on Philippine independence was centered on why the islands should be given sovereignty. After the Watsonville Riot, the question changed to “How soon can the U.S. give the Filipinos their independence?” so they could be banned from this country. The manongs stayed; and we’re still here.  

First published in Filipinas Magazine, January 1996. Daniel Gonzales and Daniel Begonia, professors of Filipino American Studies at San Francisco State University, contributed to this article.


 Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. is a retired Philippine American Military History professor.


More from Alex S. Fabros, Jr.:

When Hilario Met Sally: The Fight Against Anti-Miscegenation Laws
October 2, 2013
The time Filipinos in America could not marry Caucasian women.