Editorial & Opinion

‘12 Years a Slave?’ California Filipinos know some of that pain

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When American Filipinos celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his special day (Jan. 20th) that commemorates his dream, they may want to also remember Fermin Tobera.


Tobera was no slave, but he was an American Filipino victim of racial violence when an armed white mob in Watsonville, California gunned him down on Jan. 22, 1930.

It came days after Filipinos leased a dance hall and hired nine white girls.

I was reminded of Tobera’s death as I saw the movie “12 years a Slave,” the haunting true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South in the 1840s.

The movie has been re-released nationally, to coincide with the King holiday weekend, as well as the film’s Golden Globe win for Best Drama, and its 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

As I watched the movie for the first time this week, I kept flinching at the horrible beatings and lashings that make one cringe. If you ever thought slavery was some benign, genteel Southern thing, the movie will beat that notion out of your head.  The movie is so graphic one black critic even called it “torture porn.”

There is a thin line between historical documentation and titillation, but it’s all in Northup’s 1853 memoir.

This is full-blown, no doubt about it, in your face graphic racism. Racism as American horror story.

All that racism reaches out over the screen and just grabs you by the neck for more than two hours. It’s called “12 years…,” but there’s nothing really to indicate the passage of time. No super-imposed dateline, no summer/fall/ winter/spring time lapse. Within the first 10 minutes, Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Golden Globe and Oscar best actor nominee) is chained and beaten mercilessly into submission with a board.

That’s just the warm-up. Then it’s 14 more lashes with a whip after the board. There are more after that, one begins to lose count. Each stroke of a whip is magnified. And then there’s Patsey (played by Golden Globe nominee, Lupita Nyong’o). She gets at least 40 lashes during her torture star-turn, with welts that should earn at least a makeup Oscar. On top of all that, add a failed hanging (a lynching interruptus), in which a dangling body just lingers on the screen.

It’s a wonder they didn’t make it in IMAX, 4-D, with flying whips and swollen wounds you could touch.

You’ll ask, “Did they really have to show that?” Was it really for historical effect or some kind of perverse titillation?

In this era, society is no longer aghast by school shootings, theatre shootings (I was sure to turn my phone off), or news of enslaved females in Ohio and abroad. Our shock threshold is so high we are inured to it all.

Maybe we all need to get beaten up by “12 Years a Slave.”

“12 years a Slave” is electroshock for racists.

And what about you non-racists?

 American Filipinos’ plight


Initially I didn’t feel compelled to rush out and see the film, thinking I knew what slavery was all about.

But slavery never really did end. It just evolved with different systems and different “exploitees.”

Soon after slavery, America simply turned to an imperial notion of itself and assumed a “master” role in the Philippines as colonizer and overseer of their “Little Brown Brothers.”

It was under that rubric that many non-wealthy Filipinos from the provinces were allowed to come to America in the 1920s.

They were the early Filipinos to the US, like my dad—and Fermin Tobera.

Filipino men were supposedly here to seek an education. Instead, it seems that their numbers (around 15,000) were more useful to fill in the labor force in the fields of California.

Filipinos may not have been enslaved, but their rights were certainly restricted. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t marry. They couldn’t marry outside their race. Such were the benefits of colonization. With so few Filipinas in the US, the men were here to work, not raise families.

The numbers of Jim Crow southerners who moved from Louisiana and Texas and headed to California after slavery, also had an impact on the race environment. Intolerance levels were high. Stockton became known for signs that said “No Filipinos Allowed.”

As outlined in Dawn Bohulano Mabalon’s excellent history of Stockton, “Little Manila is in the Heart,” (Duke University Press), the violence by white mobs against Filipinos reached a peak in the fall and winter of 1929-1930.

Vigilantes killed Tobera on the coast in Watsonville in 1930.  Mabalon writes that by August, the local Filipino papers were reporting that a contractor north of Stockton, “saw two Filipinos hanging from a tree, and one burned body propped up against the tree trunk.”

Through that kind of violence, American Filipinos know the kind of racism that was at the root of Dr. King’s fight.

Tobera is our reminder that we too have come a long way and share in a part of Dr. King’s dream.

The Filipino Express

2711 John F. Kennedy Boulevard
Jersey City, NJ 07306 USA.

Phone: 201 434-1114
Fax: 201 434-0880

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