June 24, 1909 – April 11, 1978
Chris Mensalvas was born Christopher Delarna Mensalvas in San Manuel, Pangasinan, Philippines. “I was born when American occupation of the Philippines was fully consolidated and the English language imposed in public schools,” he described.
“I came to America in 1927, when I was 18… to further my education.” But social-political conditions in the US limited his ambitions and like many Filipinos, Chris was forced to work low-paying jobs in the agricultural fields, the Alaskan canneries, and various other service industries.
Experiencing degrading working conditions such as, no overtime pay, inadequate housing, unuhealthy food and water, and the overall racial hostility of the period, encouraged Chris to organize in his workplace to change conditions for himself and his fellow workers. Between the years 1949-1959, Chris was president of ILWU’s Local 37, the Filipino Alaskeros unionor cannery workers union. Aside from his work there, Chris also organized cannery and agricultural workers in California in areas such as, San Pedro, Monterey, San Francisco, and the Salinas Valley. It was through his profilic travelling and labor organizing activities that Chris met Carlos Bulosan as well as becoming an inspirational figure for Filipino farmworker, Philip Vera Cruz, who later became the United Farm Workers vice-president in the 1970’s.
“Chris was probably the most outstanding Filipino organizer in this country throught the 1940’s and ’50’s,” hailed Philip Vera Cruz. “He and Ernesto Mangaong organized.. the first major agricultural workers strike (in Stockton) after the (Second World) war… The Delano strike in 1965 by the UFW was bigger in scle and impact, but back then, the Stockton strike was the biggest strike I had participated in,” described Philip. His best friend, Carlos Bulosan, also commended Chris as the best Filipino organizer.
Chris also became an inspiration for the following generation of Filipino workers and organizers like Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, who consulted Chris about his organizing experiences to develop labor organizing strategies for their own work with Alaskan cannery workers. Chris’ daughter, Patsy Mensalvas Martell, recalls this about her father: “My dad was always a busy bee when it came to the rights of minorities, the union, and other causes. He was a fighter to the end, a fighter with a fantastic sense of humor!”
Chris Mensalvas passed away in 1978 in Seattle due to smoke inhalation from a fire in the Downtowner Apartments room where he resided.
August 16, 1951 -June 1, 1981
Gene Viernes was born in Yakima, Washington to Barbara and Felix Viernes on August 16,1951. Gene’s father hailed from the Ilocos region of the Philippines and came to the U.S. with the wave of young Filipino men in the 1920’s searching for a better life in the U.S. Like other manongs, Felix Viernes, made a living as a migrant worker picking crops along the west coast and working in the Alaska salmon canneries. Felix made Wapato, Washington his home and began to raise a family.
As the eldest boy of nine children, Gene carried the strain of coming from a poor, working class family. It was not unusual for Gene to work in the fields early in the morning before attending school. At the time of his death, Gene was financially supporting his widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters.
Gene joined Local 37, ILWU in 1966 at the age of 14, after lying about his age and paying a $50 bribe to a cannery foreman. He spent many summers as an “Alaskero,” working in the Alaskan salmon canneries along with his father and brothers. His experience with the substandard working and segregated living coliditions in the canneries and the blatant discrimination against Filipinos led Gene to demand improvements, first individually, and later to organize others to do likewise.
It was in the course of this work that led Gene to meet Silme Domingo and others doing similar work. Together, they formed the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association, a workers’ legal advocacy group. Soon Gene Viernes and others were black-listed by the cannery management and refused jobs in the canneries. Yet, Gene and others persisted and by the late 1970’s Local 37 was forced to accept Gene and others back into the union. Gene played a crucial role in the formation of the Rank and File Committee, the group who spearheaded the reform movement in 1977.
Gene will long be remembered for his ground breaking work in uncovering the militant history of Local 37, ILWU. In a seven part series published in the International Examiner Newspaper in 1977, Gene revealed a history that had long been hidden from the Filipino community.
At Gene’s memorial in 1981, his best friend from Wapato,Andy Pascua, described Gene in the following words: “The reason they had to shoot Gene was because they couldn’t change him. He was totally dedicated, totally incorruptible… He wasn’t selfish, but I think he was wealthier than all of us.”
January 25, 1952 -June 2, 1981
Silme Domingo was born in Killeen, Texas on January 25, 1952. His father, Nemesio Domingo, came to the U.S. from Santa Maria, Philippines as part of the 1920’s immigration wave of young Filipino men. When World War II broke out, his father was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the Philippines to fight against the Japanese occupation. After the war, Nemesio married Adelina and returned to the U.S. to raise a family.
Silme was the third of five children born to the Domingo family. While growing up in Texas and Germany, due to his father’s military career, the Domingo family eventually settled in Seattle, Washington in 1960. Silme attended Ballard High School and graduated with honors from the University of Washington.
Silme’s vision of social justice developed out of his parents’ activities in the Filipino community and his work in the International District. A born leader, Silme found himself at the center of many movements and issues. In the early 70’s, Silme joined other Asian students in the successful efforts to save the International District as a neighborhood after the government’s decision to build the Kingdome. Silme worked side by side to establish social services to meet the needs of the elderly and, the youth in the I.D., many services which still exists today.
In 1974 Silme joined the Union of Democratic Filipino (KDP) and established the Seattle KDP chapter. On September 22, the anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines, the Seattle chapter organized the first protest in Seattle against the Marcos dictatorship. The KDP was a national activist organization committed to fighting for the rights of Filipinos in the U.S., democracy in the Philippines and to build a progressive Filipino movement in the community. As a member of the KDP, Silme led various local and national campaigns revolving around issues of injustice against Filipinos.
As an active member in the Filipino community, Silme played a prominent role in the Filipino Community in Seattle, Inc. (FCSl). He was also a member of the Burgos Lodge, No. 10 Cabelleros de DimasAlang, Sons and Daughters of Santa Maria and the Northern League.
Silme was best known for his work as a trade union activist. His work in the Alaskan Cannery Workers Union continues to inspire international solidarity amongst workers in their struggle for justice. Silme’s work continues today by the many people that were inspired by his work and courage of his two children Ligaya and Kalayaan.