Watsonville Filipino history digital archive now available for public viewing

The view from behind the podium as two speakers address a large crowd in an atrium
Graduate students Christina Ayson Plank (left) and Meleia Simon-Reynolds (right) address a gathered crowd of about 300 people during the launch event for the Watsonville is in The Heart Digital Archive at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Photo: Kaelynn Campbell
Old photos displayed in a gallery space on stands and tables
The launch event featured pop-up exhibits by UCSC undergraduate students Markus Faye Portacio and Katrina Pagaduan and interactive kiosks to help guests explore the archive's current content, which is now publicly available online. Photo: Mitchell Plank
Group photo of men, note on the back says "here we are again, so lonely and miss you..."

Manong maintained close ties with family in the Philippines, sending photos and heartfelt correspondence back and forth, as this photo with inscription from the archive shows. Manongs Posed on Riverside Road, c. 1963, photograph, 3.5 x 3.5 inches, Collection of Joanne De Los Reyes-Hilario, https://wiith.ucsc.edu/items/show/145. 

Man fishing on the beach with child in background
One of the archive’s first digital exhibits, titled “More Than Their Labor,” shows Manong and their families in happy moments of leisure. Leon Tabalan DeOcampo Fishing at Pismo Beach, 1969, photograph, 11 x 8.5 inches, Collection of Antoinette Yvonne DeOcampo Lechtenberg, https://wiith.ucsc.edu/items/show/13

About 300 people gathered at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History on April 9 to celebrate the launch of the Watsonville is in the Heart Digital Archive. UC Santa Cruz faculty and students had been collaborating with leaders of Watsonville’s Filipino community for the past year on the project. The archive is now viewable online and features oral history recordings, original documents, photos, and family artifacts highlighting Filipino history in the Pajaro Valley, starting with the “Manong generation,” the first wave of Filipino immigrants who arrived in the 1920s and 1930s.

The project was initiated by community leader Dioscoro “Roy” Recio, Jr., whose parents were descendants of local Manong. Recio noticed a conspicuous lack of inclusion of Filipino narratives in local historical accounts, and he wanted to ensure that the stories of early immigrants weren’t lost to time. So he started organizing community members through an initiative called The Tobera Project, which included a call to share stories and showcase family heirlooms reflecting Filipino heritage. 

Those efforts grew into a partnership with UC Santa Cruz, and faculty and student researchers from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts Divisions have since been collecting oral histories as part of the McHenry Library’s special collections and developing a digital archive website with support from the library. The Watsonville is in the Heart Digital Archive is an iterative project and will continue adding stories from the Pajaro Valley Filipino community, but the launch event shared how to view it online and featured pop-up exhibits and interactive kiosks to help guests explore the archive’s current content. 

The UCSC team has done a wonderful job," Recio said of the archiving work thus far. "They’ve been very diligent, very professional, and very true to the mission and vision of the project, and they’ve been working hard to make the archive lively, enchanting, and engaging. We’re making excellent progress.” 

The launch event also featured a panel discussion with three community members—Juanita Sulay Wilson, Eva Alminiana Monroe, and Antoinette DeOcampo Lechtenberg—who are key contributors to the digital archive. The discussion highlighted the role that women have played as organizers and cultural carriers in the local Filipino community, as they passed down customs, history, and a sense of pride to their children across generations. 

In fact, family is a unifying theme throughout the archive materials, which speaks to the strength and resilience of the community. Most members of the Manong generation left the Philippines as single men and were recruited into agricultural work in the Pajaro Valley. Women and children in the Philippines were often legally barred from joining them, and racist laws in California also made it largely illegal for the Manong to marry women they met after arriving in the state. But there are many stories of how love overcame those barriers. 

The archive contains several testimonies of marriages in neighboring states, like Washington and Arizona, that show how some interracial couples built families. Manong also maintained close ties with family in the Philippines, sending photos and heartfelt correspondence back and forth. In some cases, family members from the Philippines were ultimately able to reunite with loved ones in the Pajaro Valley as immigration policies changed. But for the majority of Manong, who never had children of their own, the tight-knit local Filipino community became their family. 

These are the types of stories that the digital archive shares. Steve McKay, an associate professor of sociology and one of the faculty leaders of the project, said it has been a moving experience for UCSC researchers to work alongside community members on these efforts. 

“We are so honored to be able to share such intimate stories that people tell us about their families and that they trust us with that,” he said. “The families I’ve talked to have been thankful that there’s going to be an archive so that their family stories aren’t lost. That’s really important, and we feel a lot of responsibility around that. It’s something that we can give back to them.”

Through sharing perspectives from the community, the archive documents Filipino life in the Pajaro Valley with a depth and richness that’s currently missing from historical accounts. Most records of early Filipino immigrants in the area focus only on their exploitation as low-wage farm laborers, or on the violence they endured, like the 1930 Anti-Filipino Watsonville Race Riots. 

But one of the new archive’s first digital exhibits, titled “More Than Their Labor,” takes a very different approach by broadening the frame beyond those traumas to show Manong and their families in happy moments of leisure. Christina Ayson Plank, a doctoral candidate in UCSC’s History of Art & Visual Culture Department and co-director of the archive, curated the exhibit. 

“I wanted this exhibit to showcase how the Manongs were more than their laboring bodies, and you can actually see from the archives how they moved around when they were just having fun and hanging out, and that shows how they made friends and created community,” she said. “This is part of how they were building a home in Watsonville.”

As the archive continues to grow, a K-12 ethnic studies curriculum will also be developed around the archive materials, and the archive collection efforts will culminate in a 2024 exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. In the meantime, Kathleen Gutierrez, an assistant professor of history and faculty leader on the archive, said that UCSC members of the project team are looking forward to hearing many more stories from the community and are grateful to Recio for the opportunity to be involved. 

“Roy’s energy for this initiative is endless, and I’m often struck by his commitment,” Gutierrez said. “He drives this work and reminds me of the power of community-engaged projects. It’s wonderful to see his vision—and that of other Pajaro Valley community members—materialize.”