Local 37 Memorialized and Celebrated the Story of the Alaskeros

Humanities Washington is celebrating our 40th anniversary with Forty Years of Washington Stories. Each week on Spark, we’ll offer a snapshot from our past, sharing forty years of stories that have helped shape the humanities in Washington state. This week: Filipino-American cannery workers.

Trinidad Rojo, left, and Jack Buenavista were two of the Alaskeros featured in the project. Rojo served as president of Local 37 four times between the 1930s and 1940s.

The Filipino workers who traveled to the Alaskan fish canneries in the 1920s were known collectively as the Alaskeros. Trinidad Rojo, left, and Jack Buenavista were two such workers featured in Local 37’s oral history project. Rojo served as president of Local 37 four times in the 1930s and 1940s.

Humanities Washington is celebrating our 40th anniversary with Forty Years of Washington Stories. Each week on Spark, we’ll offer a snapshot from our past, sharing forty years of stories that have helped shape the humanities in Washington state.

When Filipino workers arrived on the West Coast in the early part of the 20th century, Alaskan fish cannery operators promised them decent wages and steady jobs if the men would travel north to work. So many of them accepted these contracts that they became known as the Alaskeros. Despite experiencing blatant discrimination, horrifying living conditions and physical violence, the Alaskeros unionized and established a robust Filipino presence on the West Coast.

Though they began working in the Alaskan canneries as early as the 1920s, their story was not widely told until 1986, when Humanities Washington partnered with Seattle’s Cannery Workers Union Local 37 to develop Pioneer Alaskeros: A Documentary Project on Early Filipino Cannery Workers. The project, spearheaded by photographer John Stamets, used portraits and oral histories to illustrate the struggle and success of the Alaskeros.

Stamets’ project helped increase the visibility of a previously under-recognized community in the Northwest. The exhibit was a smashing success, receiving almost 40,000 visitors at over fifteen locations around Washington state. Evergreen State College Professor Peter Bacho, who advised the exhibit, remembers it with great fondness. “My father and uncles were all Alaskeros,” he said. “I’m very proud to have been associated with the project.” Bacho recalled that several Alaskeros were able to attend the opening of the exhibition. Components of the exhibit are still featured at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, and will be on display until September 2014.

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