In 1981, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, two young Filipino American civil rights activists and labor union leaders, were assassinated outside of their union offices in Seattle, WA. Their deaths came at the hands of hired gunmen working for corrupt Local 37 president Tony Baruso and ruthless dictator (and, at the time, president of the Philippines) Ferdinand Marcos.
Viernes and Domingo, outspoken for reform of the Marcos regime and other social injustices against Filipinos, were best known for their efforts to expose and put a stop to discrimination against Asian American workers in the Alaska salmon canning industry.
Like their family before them, Viernes and Domingo worked in Alaskan canneries during the 1960s and 1970s. As minorities, they faced extreme discrimination.
The Alaskan canneries had segregated mess halls where people of color were given only fish and rice to eat—white workers had a colorful spread of food to choose from, that included fruits, vegetables, and desserts. The canneries also had segregated living quarters. People of color were forced to live in decrepit, cold, and drafty bunkhouses, while white workers were provided with new and spacious dormitory-style housing.
Beyond all this, higher paying jobs were closed off to people of color, who were not only required to take on more tiresome and grueling work, but also required to work more often and longer hours. In response to these injustices, Domingo and Viernes eventually filed lawsuits against the canneries and formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA) to direct the lawsuits.
Ron Chew was editor of the International Examiner in the late 1970s when it was published by the ACWA. During that time, Chew worked closely with Domingo and Viernes. He knew them well as friends and as colleagues. Their efforts and impact on the labor movement, and those around them, became the inspiration for Chew’s book, Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, and Chew and Shannon Gee’s film, One Generation’s Time: The Legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes.
Both the book and film document the struggles Viernes and Domingo faced while combating discrimination in the Alaskan canneries. Readers and viewers learn about the duo’s ability to organize, lead, and help those around them. Those efforts helped people in the labor movement to carry on the fight long after their deaths.
Chew said he hopes that his book and film encourages more people to not only follow their dreams, but also find their voice, get involved in their communities or a cause larger than themselves, and correct social injustices, especially for those who are voiceless in our society—just as Viernes and Domingo did for their generation.
“They were two people who believed passionately in certain things and fought to realize their dreams and anyone can do that. Heroes are not anything more than ordinary people who devote their lives to fulfilling their dreams,” Chew said.
According to Chew, from the beginning, he wanted to organize Domingo and Viernes’ story into a book as well as a standalone film. Chew had previously collaborated with Gee for an exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum, If Tired Hands Could Talk: Stories of APA Garment Workers, and a video documentary entitled, Finding Home in Chinatown. Chew said he knew they would work well together, so he asked her to take up the challenge of putting together the documentary.
“Ron asked me if I wanted to videotape the interviews, but also possibly entertain a documentary version of the story,” Gee said. “We sort of went in tandem at that point. He was gathering information for the book, and I was also gathering information for the documentary.”
Chew and Gee started working together on the film in 2011, 30 years after the activists’ passing.
Gee wrote, directed, photographed, and edited One Generation’s Time. Gee said that although she found the project challenging, she enjoyed the support of Chew (as producer) and Ed Echtle (as associate producer) and found the overall experience very rewarding.
One of the biggest challenges she faced was including all of the people involved in the story and in the labor movement, Gee said. Gee and Chew’s film compiles a moving collection of interviews from friends, family, and activists who were involved in the labor movement with Viernes and Domingo. Between interviews, viewers are also treated to rare footage from Domingo and Viernes’ era.
The film also features a dynamic score by Stephen Thomas Cavit and a memorable narration by George Quibuyen of the Blue Scholars.
Gee said she hopes the film encourages people to look deeper into the history of Domingo and Viernes. It’s a complex story that has touched a lot of people and influenced the labor and justice movement in many ways, she said.
As far as what she found most inspiring about Domingo and Viernes, Gee said that she is most impressed by, “how they’re real pioneers in terms of taking on the injustices and trying to figure out how to do it in a smart way and in an organized way. … I am even more inspired that many of the people who fought those first battles continued on. And they continue on today. They are still working for equal rights in the fishing industry and for the union.”
Domingo and Viernes were both only 29 when their lives were tragically taken from them. Yet their hard work and dream to create social change and end discrimination in the workplace had taken foot and was heroically carried on by their friends, family, and fellow labor members after their deaths.
The film One Generation’s Time: The Legacy of Silme Domingo & Gene Viernes screens at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on Sunday, February 9 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.
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