Fermin Tobera should be a household name in Watsonville. It should be a name that is remembered and celebrated by all who have ever lived in the Pajaro Valley, and believe in justice, equality and progress. Sadly, it’s not, and that needs to change.
Tobera is the Filipino-American man who was heartbreakingly shot and killed during the horrific Watsonville riots of 1930. For five consecutive nights, a mob of roughly 500 white men roamed the streets of Watsonville and Pajaro with the intention of attacking Filipinos who did nothing but chase the American dream in the same way many Latinos are today—by working their tails off in agricultural fields. They pulled Filipinos out of their homes and savagely beat them on the streets. Some were thrown over the Pajaro bridge, according to newspaper reports and historical entries.
Tobera was killed when a carload of white rioters fired shots into a bunkhouse at the Murphy Ranch, a few miles east of Watsonville. Many of the Filipinos in the bunkhouse dropped to the floor, and out of the way of the gunfire. Tobera was shot in the heart. He died Jan. 22, 1930.
This was international news. Tobera’s body was flown to Manila, where the country sponsored a large funeral attended by thousands of Tobera’s countrymen. And every news agency in the nation had its eyes trained on Watsonville and the ongoing violence and unrest.
The 90th anniversary of Tobera’s murder was last week. It came and went. There was nothing from the city offices, and not a single councilmember brought forward, at the very least, a resolution in recognition during their Jan. 21 meeting. It’s disappointing but not very surprising.
The Watsonville riots have almost been forgotten. I did not hear a peep about them in any history class when I was at Watsonville High School—I graduated in 2010. And around the city there is no monument, no mural, no street, no building, no plaque, nothing, that acknowledges they ever happened, or that Tobera lost his life. To this day, the only real acknowledgment or apology has come from former Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo, now a Monterey County Supervisor. In 2011, Alejo, then an Assemblyman, wrote a resolution that stated California had officially apologized for the riots and the discrimination the Filipino-American community has faced since.
Not surprisingly, Tobera’s killers did not face any justice. According to news reports, police arrested eight young men who were part of the riot, but none were directly linked to his murder. That was a result of an ugly, racist campaign against Filipinos championed by a majority of the state. Newspapers around Northern California began to describe Filipinos as the state’s “next problem,” and in the year before Tobera was murdered a Pajaro judge declared Filipinos undesirable, unhealthy and destructive to living wages, parroting feelings expressed throughout the state.
We can’t go back in time and solve Tobera’s murder and stop that senseless violence. What we can do today is make sure everyone in Watsonville knows who Fermin Tobera was, and how he had his life—his opportunities, his dreams, his future—stripped away. It’s time.
Contact Pajaronian Managing Editor Tony Nuñez at [email protected]