The Tractor Princess

Memories from California’s Pajaro Valley.

One afternoon, when she was around 12 years old, Antoinette rode a tractor through the town of Aromas, California.

Her father had told her not to use the vehicle. Men drove tractors; women carried out other farming tasks. That day, however, Antoinette ignored the social rules. Her older sister, Veronica, sometimes goaded her into mischief; the two had previously swiped the keys to a Jeep for a quick drive during a quiet moment in the fields. As Antoinette lurched over berry plots and dusty roads, she delivered a pageant wave from her seat, declaring herself, at least for that moment, the Tractor Princess.


Antoinette is one of thousands of children of the “manong generation” (manong means “older brother” in Tagalog/Ilokano), Filipino migrants who came to the Western Seaboard and Hawai’i to labor in plantations, canneries and service jobs in the early 20th century. When the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898, the U.S. government recruited Filipino farmers to come do the work previously done by Chinese and Japanese migrants. Discriminatory policies that choked off Chinese and Japanese migration left open thousands of agricultural jobs ready to be filled by “U.S. nationals,” the euphemism for the nation’s new colonial subjects. As U.S. nationals, Filipino farmworkers occupied a liminal legal position that simultaneously allowed them to labor in the U.S. while denying them access to the basic rights of citizens. Roughly 100,000 Filipino men — and within this figure, a lesser number of Filipina women — established families, sprawling kin networks and enclaves along the West Coast. 

A Filipino Fourth of July float.
Collection of Joan Ellen Rodriguez

The Pajaro Valley was one of those places. Located on California’s Central Coast, southeast of Santa Cruz, the valley is one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions. First home to the Ohlone people, the region saw massive land transformation under successive waves of Spanish, Mexican and U.S. incursion. A fertile plain with foothills rising to its east, the valley greets mists from Monterey Bay. It has produced cattle, grain, orchards, and tuber and root crops for over two centuries. Filipinos began arriving in the 1910s and settled in towns like Watsonville, Las Lomas, Moss Landing and Aromas.

In some respects, the history of the manong has been carefully documented. The late historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon wrote an exceptional book on the manong of Stockton, California, titled Little Manila is in the Heart (2013), while Rick Baldoz’s The Third Asiatic Invasion (2011) offers a sobering look at the harsh legal conditions under which the manong labored and loved. In Becoming Mexipino (2012), Rudy Guevarra documented the stories of manong, their Mexican wives and their “Mexipino” children in San Diego. There are also novels, theater productions and other scholarly works on the topic.

Their stories create a compelling archive, offering new angles from which to understand the social complexities of the Filipino diaspora and of agrarian life.

Yet we know far less of children like Antoinette, members of what’s been called the “bridge generation.” They are the U.S.-born second-generation immigrants who connect the two major migration waves from the Philippines — the manong were the first, while the second encompasses the predominantly middle-class emigres who arrived after the passage of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965. Unlike the Philippine-born farmworkers who preceded them and the professionals who followed, the bridge generation had to negotiate the complexity of their Philippine and U.S. identities between two major historical bookends.

Manong “Gasat,” Daniel “Dan,” Mariano Jr., and Mariano Sr. eat lunch in the back of a truck in the fields (left). Mariano Fallorina Sr. and his son, Daniel “Dan” Fallorina, picking strawberries at the Reiter Berry Farm (right).
Collection of Dan Fallorina

IN FEBRUARY OF 2020, longtime Filipino community leader Dioscoro “Roy” Recio Jr., a member of the bridge generation, mounted an exhibit at the Watsonville Public Library entitled “Watsonville is in the Heart.” He wanted to celebrate local manong history, inspired by the work of Dawn Mabalon as well as by America is in the Heart, a 1943 novel by author Carlos Bulosan that is considered a classic in the Asian American canon. Rolling COVID-19 closures, however, abruptly ended the exhibit. Undeterred, Recio reached out to faculty and graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) to jump-start an even more ambitious project. 

Launched at the end of 2020 and formalized in 2021, the university’s version of “Watsonville is in the Heart” is a campus-community research initiative, which I co-lead, that seeks to preserve the history of the manong of the Pajaro Valley. Since 2021, a team of interviewers and digital archivists has conducted 44 oral history interviews with 44 narrators and accessioned 1,140 cultural objects, images and documents to create the first digital archive that chronicles the community. 

I first learned about this local history within the wider arc of Asian American studies and Filipino diaspora studies during my own early career as a professor at UCSC. My uncle by marriage had labored in the nearby fields of Salinas. I can still hear him describing his ambivalence about the Delano grape strike, his accent carrying intonations from the island of Bohol and Monterey Bay. 

Sadly, the manong themselves have long passed. But members of the bridge generation have entrusted our research team with their memories, and we have been honored to hear their childhood tales of labor and leisure, suffering and jubilee. Their stories create a compelling archive, offering new angles from which to understand the social complexities of the Filipino diaspora and of agrarian life.

MANY CHILDREN OF the manong worked in agricultural fields. This included the daughters, who began laboring as kids, sometimes as young as 3. 

At age 60, Antoinette DeOcampo-Lechtenberg spoke to our team during an oral history interview that included a field tour of Aromas and adjacent towns. Her first job was folding produce boxes, for which she received about 3 cents a box. “The work had been fun,” she told us. Until she grew up, and “it got a little less fun.” 

Paul “Skippy” Tabalan DeOcampo and his children, Antoinette Yvonne DeOcampo-Lechtenberg, Veronica Hernandez and Paul Jr., sit on a tractor at the DeOcampo farm.
Collection of Antoinette DeOcampo Lechtenberg and Veronica Hernandez

The fields greeted her at the end of every school day. Like other girls, she picked the long stems of strawberry plants, filling burlap sacks with dusty hands. As their parents bent over rows of growing strawberries, their children worked and scampered around, sometimes nibbling plump fruit freshly sprayed with pesticides. 

During summer, when school was out, Antoinette rose with the sun to pick green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. When she got older, she obtained a permit to work on other farms. During the warm months, she picked raspberries; during the fall, windfall apples.

It wasn’t just piecemeal work, but entire morning shifts. “If you got to be the lucky one,” she remembered, you would “make that pot of rice at night” before others came in, a task that offered momentary reprieve from the fields. 

Veronica, her sister, recalled hoeing the soil. “I remember at 4 years old, looking at the sky because it seemed endless. You’re hoeing, the rows are endless, the sky was endless.” As she got older, she cut stalks of dill and pickled cucumbers, cut apricots at nearby plots, then packed broccoli and apples, tossing five-pound bags of produce onto conveyor belts. 

Other young women’s recollections include social dances and parades that reinforced traditional gender norms. Queens and princesses were crowned in Philippine fashion, waving flags and celebrating a kind of Filipina American womanhood of the time. Women’s clubs welcomed both Filipinas and non-Filipinas, and their role as cultural arbiters was no less significant in the Pajaro Valley. 

“I remember at 4 years old, looking at the sky because it seemed endless. You’re hoeing, the rows are endless, the sky was endless.”

Several other young women saw their work in agricultural fields as an ever-present reality that also reinforced gendered expectations. The seemingly small tasks of picking small fallen fruits fell to girls. Teenage girls were able to lay irrigation pipes, some remembered. When older, they joined their mothers at canneries and packing plants that sealed produce for storage, shipment and long, long lives on shelves. 

This made Antoinette’s afternoon defiance all the more unusual: her boredom with the day’s tasks, her curiosity and her determination to ride the tractor — a technological symbol of rugged male work. Some parents saw tractors as much too dangerous for kids; one child was killed in an  accident, crushed by heavy wheels. Antoinette and Veronica could pose with the vehicle, as they did for some family photos, but their labor stayed close to the ground, off the grumbling machine. 

Our public memory often traffics in heroism, honor or grief. Many associate these and their attendant emotions with the manong. Through what other lattice of emotion might we remember the hard-working girls of the bridge generation? With their help, I hope we can build the monuments in their honor that they deserve.  

All collections can be accessed on the Watsonville is in the Heart Digital Archive.

Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez is an assistant professor of Philippine, Southeast Asian, and science history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is co-Principal Investigator of Watsonville is in the Heart.

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