According to Google, to be revolutionary is: “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.”
The first time I learned about Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, I was attending the Filipino Revolutionary History Tour led by an anti-imperialist Filipino grassroots organization Bayan USA Pacific Northwest. Our tour guide, Joaquin Uy, took us from the Eastern Hotel where migrant workers such as writer and worker organizer Carlos Bulosan resided to the former headquarters of Local 37 ILWU, the place where Gene and Silme were murdered by an assassin connected to Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos. I remember I got chills as he told the story and we stood at the sidewalk where the scene had happened. My friend’s daughter Diwa was playing right there on the spot where Gene died.
At that time, I admit I knew very little about Gene and Silme. Actually I did not know much about Filipino Activism History in general. We aren’t taught this history in school, and with the lack of representation of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood and leadership positions, it’s difficult to access pride in being Fil-Am, let alone a Filipino Revolutionary.
I began to dig deeper. I took educational workshops with BAYAN, read books like Philippine Revolution and Society and The Cry and the Dedication, and spent hours on the UW Civil Rights and Labor History Project website. I learned that Gene Viernes was a farmworker kid from Yakima and that Silme was a city boy, that this urban and rural combination was a winning one. I learned how Filipino farmworkers initiated the Delano Grapes strike and how that led to collaboration with the Latino farmworkers; Larry Itliong and the Cesar Chavez went on to found the United Farmworkers Union (UFW).
Similarly today, Got Green works with our sister organization, Community to Community, to build an urban and rural partnership as we know our economies and struggles are connected to each other. That’s why we support the Boycott Driscoll Berries campaign and organizing efforts of the independent farmworker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ). On July 11, there will be a march to commemorate the four-year anniversary of when FUJ voted to strike due to wage theft and child exploitation and 500 farmworkers walked off the fields. This strike has since become national and international with the San Quitin, Mexico farmworkers joining the strike last year.
I was hungry to learn more, so I started to ask elders and fellow organizers in the community. The most I have learned were from the stories of Michael Woo, veteran organizer and founder of Got Green. One day at the office he made a comment: “You and your friends remind me of Gene.” When I asked “how so?” he replied that we always found creative ways to make the work fun and involve many people. According to Woo, Gene was a jokester, enjoyed organizing, and loved the community. Woo told me about his family trip to Alaska to visit the place where he worked in the canneries and where they first became friends. There was a look of sadness in his eyes as he talked about his old friends.
Woo proceeded to show me faded issues of No Separate Peace, a grassroots newspaper that Gene and Silme were involved with, including other leaders from Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO) like Tyree Scott and Lynn and Cindy Domingo. The wrinkled pages held black and white photographs of past days, but familiar sights of protests against injustice and community planning meetings that I partake in my daily life.
All of this was weighing on my mind when I went on my last exposure trip to the Philippines in 2014. While in Quezon City I attended an event at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Wall of Heroes or Martrys) to remember those who were killed protesting Martial Law and the Marcos Regime. They wanted a revolution, a complete change of power and culture, and to be truly liberated from imperialist forces. But they haven’t received this revolution, yet.
Walking around the Bantayog Memorial Center, I happened to see Gene and Silme’s names inscribed on the wall of martyrs. I learned that they were the first and only revolutionaries overseas honored on the wall of martyrs. I lit a candle and paid my respects.
Even though I have never met them, Gene and Silme’s memories seemed to live on with those who worked and organized alongside them. Their Kasamas—in the past, present, and next generation—has kept the movement work alive. Learning about my history helped me strive to become a well-rounded leader. One that can learn from the past, look forward to the future, and be grounded in the community.
Standing at the wall of martyrs, I thanked Gene and Silme. I thought, how wonderful it was to see myself in the revolutionaries who came before me and how wonderful it would be someday for all of us to see ourselves as revolutionaries.
Visit the University of Washington Civil Rights and Labor History Project to learn about Silme Domingo and Gene by visiting depts.washington.edu/civilr/.
Learn more about Boycott Driscolls and Familias Unidas por la Justicia and the 4-year anniversary march on July 11 in Burlington by visiting https://boycottsakumaberries.com/.