Filipino Asparagus Workers

Visitors to the Museum's Festival of Trees in recent years may remember seeing a jaunty (and well-decorated) red Massey–Harris tractor with gray wooden bins on each side. Agricultural workers in San Joaquin County once used this tractor, and they loaded its bins with harvested asparagus.

Asparagus sledding operator poses in field with harvested stalks.

Harvesting asparagus in an earlier age required a lot of skilled hand labor. Workers cut each spear individually using long asparagus knives expertly plunged into the soil to cut below the surface. The cut needed to be low enough to include some of the spear's fibrous lower end. Doing so helped preserve moisture during transit.

Before the use of tractors in the 1910s and 1920s, cut asparagus spears were picked up in the fields with a horse-drawn cart that carried an asparagus "sled." Loaded with their harvest, the sleds were rolled into sheds, where workers washed, trimmed, and graded the asparagus. Then they boxed the spears in distinctive "pyramid" wooded crates.

After the shift to mechanization, workers set the tires of modified small tractors like the Museum's deep in the furrows of the asparagus field to keep them running straight. The operator, sometimes called the "sled boy," set the throttle and trotted behind picking up cut spears and putting them into the sleds.

A variety of immigrant farm workers harvested asparagus through the years—Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans—but immigrants from the Philippines provided most of the skilled labor during the County's heyday of asparagus. In 1930, more than 350 asparagus camps—with about seven thousand harvest workers—dotted the San Joaquin Delta.

They moved across the light, loose soil, teams of men, bent low, moving steadily as a tide. The men probed the soil with long steel knives, found the tender shoots, sliced them cleanly. The workers were covered, protected, head to foot. Straw hats worn low across the face. Bandanas across the mouth, tied behind the head. Shirts closed to the highest button. Pants stuffed into boots, or even taped to them. Often the peat soil would swirl around the men and the fine dust would invade their hair, noses, even their throats. Still the men moved forward, gathering the green stalks.

During the early years, for the pinoys, the young Filipino immigrants, Stockton was the center, the place to be. By 1930, Stockton was home, for at least part of the year, to perhaps a third of all the Filipinos in the United States. A pinoy could feel comfortable in Stockton. (Richard Hammer, "From the Philippines to the Delta," Stockton Record.)

In 1935, a federal law limited Filipino immigration to fifty per year and changed the status of all Filipinos previously admitted as U.S. nationals back to foreign aliens. A law in 1936 granted Filipinos free passage back to the Philippines—which encouraged them to leave the United States—but more than 90 per cent of California's Filipinos chose to stay.

The Filipinos of San Joaquin County supported each other in fraternal and civic groups such as the Legionnarios del Trabajo. Many Filipinos served gallantly in World War II, which encouraged the majority society to accept them, and were allowed to become citizens. To this day, they call San Joaquin County "home."

The Museum is developing an exhibition on the history of asparagus growing and processing. If you have ideas, stories, photos, or artifacts you would like included, please comment or e-mail me at davidstuart@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

David Stuart is the executive director and CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.

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