Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: Well, I can smell the dirt. Smell the dirt. I like to feel dirt. I can tell if dirt is good to plant in. I can tell what nutrients it needs.
Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center, this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.
Veena Hampapur: And I’m Veena Hampapur.
Saba Waheed: Today’s episode might sound a little different.
Veena Hampapur: We pull on excerpts from an oral history interview with Antoinette Yvonne DeOcampo-Lechtenberg. It’s a part of a community archive and research initiative called Watsonville is in the Heart, which highlights the stories of Filipino families from the greater Pajaro Valley region in California. Antoinette paints a picture for us of growing up in a rural farming community in the 1960s and 70s.
Saba Waheed: Watsonville is in the Heart originated with community organizer and Tobera project founder Roy Recio, and the team now included UC Santa Cruz faculty and students, including Christina Plank. Christina co-directs the project’s digital archive and is curating an exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History that will open in 2024.
Veena Hampapur: Christina joins Saba and I today to shed some light on the broader context of Antoinette’s story. We asked Christina why Watsonville, why the Pajaro Valley?
Christina Plank: Watsonville is located about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, near Monterey County and it’s a primarily farming community that really erupted during the 1920s and 1930s when agriculture started to flourish in the area. The Filipino community also came in the 1920s, 1930s, to work as primarily agricultural workers for very cheap. Manong is an Ilokano and Tagalog word that means “older brother.” But, academic and community organizers have adopted that term to refer to the first generation of Filipino migrants that came to the US in the 1920s and 1930s. A lot of them were young men who were eager to work and had these ideas of what America was like from their US colonizers and when they came here they realized that the visions of the US were very different than their experiences. They came into the United States at a time where Jim Crow laws were rampant, there was extreme poverty because of the Dust Bowl. So they were competing against all of these factors, just as the US marked the Philippines as one of its colonies.
Saba Waheed: Antoinette’s father Skippy was a part of the Manong generation.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: It’s kind of hard to be first generation. The Philippines is a long ways away, right? A lot of people don’t understand the hardships that they did go through. I mean, they were paid pennies, PENNIES to work and lived in terrible living situations. My father left the Philippines when he was seventeen. As he says, “I packed my two pairs of pants, my teeshirt, and my money,” and he stowed away on a boat and he came to San Francisco.
Christina Plank: Filipino migrants that came in the 1920s and 1930s worked up and down the pacific seaboard in California, Oregon, and Seattle following the seasonal crops. During the time of Japanese incarceration during World War II, many other Asian ethnic groups were perceived to be also Japanese and were also wrongfully incarcerated and so Antoinette believes that somebody had thought that her father Skippy was Japanese and so he was sent into the incarceration camp.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: My father didn’t have his papers and he was in an internment camp. And he lost everything at that time. He didn’t really talk a lot about that time. So I have a lot of holes about where he went. But I know in the late part of his life, he told us stories about being there and he was treated a little bit better because whoever was in charge realized he really wasn’t Japanese.
Saba Waheed: After Skippy got out, he eventually ended up in the Pajaro Valley.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: A really important thing that my father did for other Filipinos was to help them get their visas. He came here with no papers. And where did that land him? In an internment camp. So he helped people get their paperworks straight.
Christina Plank: Skippy was a very industrious man. In addition to being a foreman in various ranches, including the Crosetti ranch, he also owned his own land and farm.
Veena Hampapur: Before World War II, Filipinos were largely barred from owning land under Alien Land laws in CA and then after the war, Filipinos were legally able to own land, but it was still pretty rare due to discriminatory practices and Antoinette’s father found a way through his sister-in-law Mae.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: My Aunt Mae Rosser was a white woman that could own property, so that partnership with her owning the major part of the property and my father’s name was on the deed of the Rosser-Lazo DeOcampo Ranch.
Christina Plank: In various times, Filipino, Mexican, and Japanese laborers decided to band together and form unions and to strike against farmers. And so when the striking happened, there was moments of unrest and as a foreman and labor contractor, Skippy had a really difficult relationship to this because not only did he sympathize with the other Filipino laborers that he was working with, but as somebody who was in charge of labor and who was really close with white farm owners, he felt indebted to those communities.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: I remember the cars of people, the flags. We had to stay away from the windows, the shades are pulled down. My Dad carried his big bolo knife in the truck. I mean, they were striking, they came to the farms! For us, it was very scary. I didn’t know my father was like in between. You have your employer and you have your people and then you know what’s right, but it was a hard place to be. I know in the end, my father’s heart was with his people. He did go back to the Philippines, too. He would be storing up coffee and whatever foods to take back or necessities in the Philippines because our family there were very poor and he also would arrange marriages. He’d make that trip to the Philippines every couple of years, take some rancher with him, find a wife.
Saba Waheed: Antoinette’s mom was from Texas, but her mother’s family lost their ranch during the Depression, and so they had to move a lot. They went from Michigan to Washington to California.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: My mother was working for my uncle in the green bean fields. That’s where my father met my mother. She was a lot younger than my father. My father was about—I think he was like 48 when I was born.
Veena Hampapur: Antoinette was born in Watsonville in 1960, and a couple years later, her parents bought a property in Aromas, which was about 4 miles away.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: When I grew up in Aromas, there was a population of 408 people. There were two stores, a gas station. It was a very small town, not very diverse. But it was community.
Christina Plank: When they were growing up she referred to herself as the tractor princess because she grew up on the tractor, she learned how to ride it and that was a point of pride for her because she realized that not a lot of girls her age were given that opportunity.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: Living a farm life it’s like: you went to bed early, got up early, went to school and then when we would come back home, you know you had to make sure your chores were done. And then you went outside to play. Because we were so rural , we could be at the school or at the river or we’d play on the farm, like try to drive the tractor. My Dad would whistle and then you’d come home.
We used to go out to Bolado Park and it would be a great time because my Dad would take a blanket and he would lay under the trees and we’d take a picnic lunch. When you actually saw your parents relax, you knew that it was a good time. I mean, my Dad was laying on the grass, and enjoying just laying on the grass, and watching us play in the pool. I remember vacations being planned, but being canceled because he had to work. So that was his best way to have us have a good time as a family.
We had a lot of interaction with my uncles. My Dad would take me and my sister and it would be like a barbecue or he’d be checking the ranches. Or he’d take us to my Uncle Johnny’s house where it was very different because that was the white part of our family. There wasn’t rice on the table. I had to learn different things. I never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich until my Aunt Betty offered it to me and like, “Which would you prefer?” And I didn’t know the word “prefer.” You didn’t get a choice what was on the table you got at home. And “what would you prefer?” I don’t know!
And then the Mexican side of my family was very different. My grandmother had a house in Watsonville and my cousins, they would be there a lot. And there were a lot of differences. You know, they had different activities than we had. In town they went to the movies. We were farmers so it cycled around the farm and work. My father worked a lot more than he probably ever should and he probably was never paid as much as he should have been paid.
Saba Waheed: Skippy passed his work ethic on to his children. Antointette and her sister were involved in farm work and helped out wherever it was needed.
Christina Plank: The reason why they were so involved in the farm is because they didn’t have an older brother. You know, a lot of the gendered labor fell upon them. Learning to drive tractors or growing up and folding boxes, I think shows that they were trying to navigate between this kind of class and gendered boundaries within the Pajaro Valley.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: We were up at dawn and outside; working, picking whatever we were growing at the time. You had to pick everything and do it right. Come home from school, you went out in the field and you work because it was necessary. We worked every summer. You pick until lunchtime. You stop, take a break, and—if you got to be the lucky one—go in and make that pot of rice at night before everybody else came in. Then you got to quit a little bit earlier. So my sister and I learned how to cook rice by the time we were like seven, eight. [laughs] No rice cooker or pot. When we got older, we got our work permits and we went to other farms. It was agriculture around us. So there were blackberry fields and we would work at the orchards picking up windfall apples during the fall. It was work. When you turned eighteen you got an alarm clock so you could get to your job on time. [laughs] I think when you were thirteen you got a watch. And you never were late. You weren’t late. Our parents really instilled in us from the time my sister and I were young to save our money. We had to buy our own school clothes. But it wasn’t always just hard work because we had our uncles and we had the aunties that came out to work and they were always fun. There was always laughter and a barbecue in the field or, you know, hard work but a lot of good heart.
Veena Hampapur: In high school, Antoinette’s life took an unexpected turn.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: Life was a little bit disjointed at that time. I ended up being a teenage mom. There was a lot of shame in our family. So, I went to go live with a family in Salinas. And when I had my son, my father came to the hospital and moved me home. He said, “No, you’re my daughter. You’re coming home.” And the relationship with my son and my father was so tight that he would come and get him and sit him on the table and have breakfast with him when he was just an infant. My father basically kind of raised him, they are so much alike.
Raising him was the easy part. Going to school and going to work was the hard part. At the time I was a teenage mom, I had been accepted to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. My counselor said, “You can’t do that.” And I had to go to work. But I always went back to school. And then there were things that would come up and it was like, if you don’t have somebody advocating for you, you are lost. You are lost. And I was lost a lot of years. Then it just clicked on me that you know what, if you’ve been through it, then you should share it to make it easier for the next person. My father was one of the most generous men I ever knew, that you always help another human being.
Christina Plank: I would say for the descendants of the Manong generation, 50% decided to stay in the Pajaro Valley. For Antoinette, she wanted to stay to give back to the community by going into education.
Saba Waheed: Antoinette became a college administrator using her own experience to help other single moms.
Veena Hampapur: Eventually, Antoinette’s father got sick.
Christina Plank: Antoinette believes that the physical labor that he endured throughout his life is what ended up causing a lot of these physical ailments later on as an elderly man that his exposure to pesticides and other chemicals during the growing process perhaps might have caused his physical decay. The work, the type of labor, the fact that he was working multiple jobs at the same time, caught up with him.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: When my father passed away, I moved out there to help my Mom maintain the ranch. But then I got sick and I couldn’t help maintain the ranch. My mother sold the property to my brother and my sister. I made peace with it because I live a mile away from all my memories. I drive through the fields I’ve been through all my life. I drive through and look at the black dirt. I remember the pristine Valley with the beautiful orchards and the strawberry fields and the bean fields and now it’s all hoop houses and plastic. And I know that it’s good for the farmers but I also know that through the pesticides and this transition, a lot of us got sick. I know that a lot of our fathers suffered from being directly underneath these poisons and the sprayers. And, you know, we as kids used to chase the plane that was crop dusting. My sister and I had a bedroom on the other side of the wall of the storage room that held poison. But you can’t hold that against your parents because they didn’t know.
My father used food as medicine, though. He knew if he didn’t feel good, that he needed to eat more broccoli or he needed to eat fish. My father took care of us when we were sick. So it was always fresh fruits, vegetables, so much to the point, right, you kind of hated them after a while. But he would know that they would make you feel better. It just was something ingrained in him and it was something that I understood and I started studying it more. “Back to Eating” was a book that I kept really close to me after my father’s heart attacks because he knew he needed a heart tonic. And he kept telling me about these berries and I finally looked it up and it was Hawthorn berries and I ended up making him Hawthorn berry tea which was a heart tonifier. And then he would tell me about other things, so I would go to the herb room and pick them up and it really started my passion for learning herbs and plants as medicine. Yeah I’ve kept that pretty close to me throughout the rest of my life.
I’ll tell you a little story. My father used to put the marijuana in the alcohol for his rheumatism and he would actually make it for some of the judges in Santa Cruz County and really important people. This green, stinky ointment. And I didn’t know what it was growing up, but I went up in the attic one day and I found some pot. I went, “Oh my God, this must be my brother’s.” So I hid it so my father wouldn’t find it. And then my father would call up, “Goddammit, Tonette, your brother took my stuff.” And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What stuff, Dad?” He says, “I had a bag in the attic. That’s my marijuana I make my medicine from.” I had to tell him, “I have it, here it is, Dad.” I make amazing pain salves now and I have to attribute that to my father in teaching me that. It was something that they knew: it was good medicine.
I’ve done a lot of studying about herbs. I mean, these weeds that we call “weeds” are really medicine and I tend to them and my son, his wife is an herbalist, and he’s very much followed the path my father did with food as medicine. My grandmother, too, she used a lot of herbs. My Dad used to actually go help her put her garden in every year in Watsonville. We collect seeds and my love of plants and farming has to come from my Dad and my grandparents. But dirt is important to me. Dirt is very important to me.
Veena Hampapur: We asked Christina whether their project, Watsonville is in the Heart, is ultimately about the Manong generation or their descendants.
Christina Plank: The focus of the project is the memories of the descendants of the Manong generation and I think focusing on the memories of the children of the Manongs for us is really important because a lot of the Manongs have passed away. And so the only record that we have of them now are the memories and the stories that the 2nd generation have retained and so memory work and the politics of memory work is so important because it shows us what is remembered, why is it remembered, and what is lost and those gaps in memory, I think tell a larger story of the Filipino American experience in the Pajaro Valley.
Veena Hampapur: This project is also personal for Christina.
Christina Plank: It has really deepened my connection to this place that I call home and it has really invigorated me to be loud as a Filipino and to showcase these histories and say that Filipinos survived in these lands for so long and we continue to do so. Growing up I didn’t realize that the history of Filipinos went as far back as it did.
Connecting with the family members that’s what makes the project so important and so special to me. It feels really gratifying and I think shows the deep connections that we have between the university and the community. Community members participate in this project because they are also thinking about the future cause they are hyper aware of the fact that these histories will not be recorded if they don’t do it themselves and so they are thinking about how we can continue on this history-making so that their future generations can feel a sense of pride and belonging to the place that they’re from or growing up in.
Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg: I love my grandchildren to death. All I want to do is encourage them that you’re so worthy. “You are authentically you and you came from where you came from and you learn from your parents, you could learn from me, but you have that power to be who you are and be the best you can be. And when you don’t want to be anything at all, take a break and come back to being authentically you and light that spark.”
My father was a little man, but he was the biggest man I ever knew. And he had the biggest heart and he was so generous. He had a sense of humor that was just—he was just a funny guy. All my three granddaughters have called me every time they have to do a big report, they always choose the Philippines. And they always want grandpa’s story. I’m like, “Didn’t your sister say that?” “No, Grandma, tell us again.” So, you know, his stories stayed in the family.
I just really cherish the love that my father had for his family and for taking care of other people around him. I mean, if there was something to share, there was something to share. And it was always that way. You didn’t go to another home without something to share. If there was an abundance, you shared it. And I tried to live my life that way still. And yeah, it’s really sad that my uncles have passed and I shed a lot of tears on the way home, just remembering. They were really good people. I’m really happy I live right here where I can drive through the memories and fields and the dirt.
Veena Hampapur: What her interview really made me think about is how we connect to our origins, or our roots, or you know where we came from and in her interview, this is multilayered. You see this beautiful connection she had with her father and the ties between the generations. She talks about knowledge that gets passed down and then you also see her connection to the actual land she grew up on, like the dirt itself. And then when I was thinking about this, it’s almost like there’s another layer to this in choosing to record an oral history interview. Her past, and her heritage, and her family’s story, the roots of that are in this oral history recording now for future generations to see. It made me just think about the different ways that we connect to where we came from and the ways that we feel it and preserve it.
Saba Waheed: Hearing this story of a previous generation from the next generation, the image of dirt really resonated for me and it made me think of like, what is home? And what is my land? And especially because you get into things like, who can own land, and who can be on the land, and who harvests the land, and how land is passed down? And working with an oral history this time and really getting to see Antoinette’s story, Skippy’s story, but then a whole story of a bigger community whether it’s regional, like the Pajaro Valley as well as the Manong community. What I really felt in this story was both how stories are passed down and then also how traditions are passed down.
Veena Hampapur: A special thanks to Antoinette Yvonne DeOcampo- Lechtenberg for sharing her story. And thanks to all those involved in the Watsonville is in the Heart project. To learn more about this community archive and research initiative, and to hear Antoinette’s full interview, please visit wiith.ucsc.edu.
Saba Waheed: You’re listening to Re:Work, which is a production of the UCLA Labor Center. This episode was produced in collaboration with the UC Santa Cruz team: Christina Ayson Plank, Meleia Simon-Reynolds, Olivia Sawi, Kathleen Gutierrez, Steven McKay and Lesly Ayala, Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed at the UCLA Labor Center. Original interview by Olivia Sawi. Sound design and editing by Veena Hampapur. Mixing by Aaron Dalton. Until next time, rethink, rework.