The cheap farm labor needed to make California agriculture so immensely profitable came largely from Asian contract labor. Working class Whites felt threatened by these new immigrants. California politicians like James Phelan often played to nativist fears, making anti Asian immigration a staple of California politics. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and ending with the Immigration Act of 1917, laws and informal treaty agreements prohibited the immigration of Asian contract laborers. These laws and agreements limited the cheap labor needed for California’s economic growth, particularly its flourishing agricultural industry. As each new Asian immigrant group was barred from entry, employers sought recruits from a different Asian nation. By 1917, contract laborers from China, Korea, Japan, and India were all barred from entering the U.S. However, unlike other Asian migrants, Filipinos held a unique status as U.S. nationals that allowed them to immigrate and made them a valuable labor source in California.
This working class anger over labor competition and racial mixing between Filipino men and White women was a powder keg waiting to explode. In the fall of 1929, a rash of violence against Filipinos erupted in the Watsonville/Salinas area. Race riots exploded in Exeter, CA when farm owners replaced White fig and grape workers with Filipino labor. Three hundred White workers stormed the Filipino camp, stoning and clubbing fifty Filipino workers. In December, the North Monterey Chamber of Commerce publicly called for businesses to stop hiring Filipinos, claiming Filipinos were a moral and sanitary threat to the White community.
When a new Filipino dance hall opened in January 1930, White Watsonville residents exploded in anger. Four days of rioting began on January 20th. A mob of over 200 White citizens roamed the streets hunting Filipinos. The next day the new taxi dance hall was raided by a group of White Watsonville residents. Two days later a crowd of 500 Whites destroyed the Filipino neighborhood in Watsonville, pulling Filipinos out of the taxi dance and beating them in the streets. One man was shot in the back as he tried to escape the violence.