How do I begin to review a book when it is part of my story as well as many others? Reading through Ron Chew’s “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism” was like being reacquainted with many old friends and comrades, just like joining Facebook, reconnecting with past friends.
Ron Chew captured the essence of the humanity in Silme and Gene. The book demystifies the myths that came about when their early deaths made them larger than life. We can relate to them as persons who were committed to make a change to the ugliness of racial injustice and inequality that surrounded them and their community. Silme and Gene were among those who work for change to a better world. Bruce Occena in his reflection succinctly said, “No one ever sets out to be a hero, you’re just trying to do what’s right, and then circumstance puts something in front of you. And so ordinary people wind up doing extraordinary things.” This is what we have witnessed when the people of Tunisia overthrew their dictator or similarly the Egyptians last year and over a decade ago the Filipinos overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship.
Ron Chew divided the story into three parts: The Era, Reflection, and The Past. It works smoothly, giving the book much life. First, the context of “The Era” gives the conditions and rationale for Silme and Gene’s development and the trajectory toward their activism: coming from different backgrounds, Silme the city slicker and Gene the country boy will join forces and work for change; the contours of the trade union reform movement within the ILWU local 37 led by Silme and Gene and the Rank and File Committee (RFC); the murder story of Silme and Gene; and the victory and changes within ILWU 37 led by the RFC to step up their campaign for change after the murders. Interspersed, Ron wove the story of the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA) the forerunner of the RFC, who led an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the industry, and the long struggle of the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes (CJDV) that ultimately peeled the layers to show who was behind the murders, from the gangster hit men, to Tony Baruso, the president of ILWU Local 37, and ultimately to Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine dictator.
The second part, “Reflection,” affirms and reaffirms the humanness of both Silme and Gene from 23 point of views of their comrades and families as well as their own stories in relation to Silme and Gene and how they were affected by the two leaders either as persons or by their deaths.
The third part, “The Past,” includes the rationale for the book over the last 30 years; how Ron took up his pen to finish the book that he had assisted Gene in writing, on the history of the fish canning industry and the labor union. Ron Chew did finish “the book” entrusted to him by Gene’s family and colleagues but along with it came the history of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes.
Clearly the threads that knit the book are the themes of change, and the actors who were willing to work for changes on the conditions they saw as unjust. We read about the personal changes that both Silme and Gene undergo; the changes within the union; and the ultimate changes in the industry that Gene predicted in his book.
This book “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes” is a useful primer for activists, and is a reminder that change is possible when collectively done. That it takes many characters from different backgrounds, with different “quirks”; as long as they work in common with the same goal change can happen.
It is also a primer because there were a lot of stories that can be told and should be told such as the class action discrimination lawsuit led by ACWA; a good legal case story.
The story of the reform movement within ILWU Local 37 led by the RFC, though touched upon by Ron, is really a story in itself as it follows the twists and turns that the RFC had to go through before finally winning. It is a good story, showing how changes to an institution can be made because essentially unions are democratic institutions whether led by “good” leadership or flawed individuals.
And last, the many people of different ages, colour and gender who stepped forward right after the murders to bring about the changes in ILWU Local 37: These included people such as Leo Lorenzo, a steady anchor in the RFC who led an earlier reform movement within local 37 in the 50’s; and BernadoTaclay, a writer and reformer in the early years who always stressed that the financial books must be right and bird-dogged us young buffaloes on the details. There was Sammy Reyes, an older cannery worker, streetwise and willing to shoot it out with the gangsters, who gave us some relief and laughter as he showed us the .32 snub nose that he always carried, and brought us news from the streets of the International District. The college girls, Myrna Bumanglag, Heidi Berget, Melissa Decker and Sharon Lind, who despite their families’ objections took part in the campaign in the canneries and in the union hall. The young white gangbanger Brian Hixson who hung out with the Filipino gangsters until he reached awareness through Angel Doniego, shifted his alliance and worked closely with the RFC. There were so many other individuals that were part of the fabric, the story of the reform movement. As in the Beatle song “In My Life,” “some are dead and some are living. In my life, I love them all.”
Yes, more stories could be added. In the end, Ron Chew accomplished his goal in this book with a clear eye: “It’s dangerously myopic to allow a pair of murders to define a complex movement that includes many other activists of equal weight whose lives weren’t ended prematurely. And those who die becomes caricatures of what they were in real life—idealized, simplified, or stereotyped in a way that cheats us of the opportunity to see them in human, correctly measured terms.”
“Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: Legacy of Filipino American Activism” is a must for Asian American and Labor Studies. Buy it, read it and recommend it to others.