Filipino American historian and former Alaskero recalls camaraderie in Alaska canneries

a former Filipino cannery worker in Alaska
Oscar Peñaranda speaks at the Alaska State Museum on Oct. 7, 2022 (KTOO screenshot)

Canneries are a big part of Alaska’s history. Throughout the 20th century, waves of immigrants – primarily from the Philippines –  came to work alongside Alaska Native people in the canneries.

The Mug Up exhibit at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau highlighted this history for the last six months. 

The exhibit features lots of historic films and photos. There are black-and-white posed photos from the turn of the 20th century, and more candid photos taken by friends from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Some panels explore the histories of the different labor movements that swept through Alaska’s canneries. 

There’s even a recreation of a bunkhouse, with a door covered in names of the workers who slept there from the 1980s to 2009. 

Next to it, a mess hall, with a hand-painted table, and a handwritten weekend menu. The backdrop is a photo of young women in hairnets smiling around a table, a few holding cigarettes.

a Filipino cannery worker in Alaska drinking coffee
Cannery workers gather on the Diamond NN Cannery dock for a “mug up” in ca. 1976. Mug Up or coffee break gave cannery workers a 15-minute reprieve from the monotony of slime line work and canning machines. (Photograph by Mike Rann)

Jackie Manning is the exhibit’s curator. Her favorite thing is a little cart used to serve coffee to workers during what was called Mug Up time. That’s where the exhibit gets its name. 

“When I went up to Bristol Bay, and I saw that little Cushman cart – is what it’s called – and heard the stories about how diverse the canary crew was, and how important that mug up time was for camaraderie and everybody meeting and taking their breaks. And just all the different languages you’d hear on the docks,” she said.

Oscar Peñaranda moved from the Philippines to Canada and eventually to California before coming to Alaska to work in a Bristol Bay cannery in the 1960s. And he kept coming back. He worked 15 summer seasons in Alaska, before deciding to stay in San Francisco full-time. 

Now, he’s a historian. He founded the San Francisco chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society and wrote about his experiences as an Alaskero – the term for Filipinos who worked in Alaska’s canneries.

For Filipino American History Month, Peñaranda was in Juneau last week for the closing of the exhibit. He recognized some names and faces in the exhibit, like the Filipino union leaders who formed the Alaska Cannery Workers Association. They were murdered in 1981, and he said that’s when he stopped going to work in Alaska. 

Peñaranda worked at the cannery for 14 years, even after he started teaching at San Francisco State University and James Logan High School in California. 

He said he kept going back for the comradery.

“But the thing was, we didn’t feel like we had to get in touch between seasons,” he said. “Because we were gonna go the next season and catch up. That’s part of the reason why we kept going.”

Peñaranda’s language skills helped him to prosper at the cannery. He speaks four Filipino languages, as well as English, Spanish and some Italian. 

“Language is how you see the world. You know two languages, you get two ways of seeing the world,” he said. 

It allowed him to work as a sort of peacekeeper between different groups at the cannery. 

The labor movements happening in the canneries paralleled his life in San Francisco in the winters. In 1968, he participated in strikes at San Francisco State University that led to the forming of the school’s College of Ethnic Studies.

Peñaranda went on to teach literature and Filipino language in high schools and colleges. 

He’s now 78, and he’s thinking of returning to Bristol Bay next summer to work with an old friend. It would be the first time he will have worked at a cannery since he stopped over 40 years ago. 

His friend is also in his late 70s and he operates the palletizer – the machine that puts all the cans into pallets to ship out. 

Another reason Peñaranda said he kept going back to cannery work was the chance to be a new version of himself.

“When you go work in the canneries and go to Alaska, you can reinvent yourself – you’ll be a completely different you. You don’t like the way you are in San Francisco? Come to Alaska. Make your own reputation.”

So, a different Oscar Peñaranda may return next summer.

KTOO is our partner public media station in Juneau. Alaska Public Media collaborates with partners statewide to cover Alaska news.

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