Emil Guillermo: My favorite Asian American labor hero

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With Labor Day coming up, here’s a perennial question that must be asked again and again at this time every year until everyone gets it right.

Can you name a great Asian American labor leader who’s a household name or should be?

Perhaps a name equal to Cesar Chavez?

If an answer doesn’t roll off your tongue, I can’t blame you.

It’s been missing from history books, so how would you know (unless you read my columns?

Still, not knowing a name only adds insult to injury because the real reason Cesar Chavez is known is largely due to one Larry Itliong.

Remember him. He’s been forgotten too long.

If you knew his name, congratulations, then ask some friends if they know the answer. If someone says Jimmy Hoffa Wong, give the person points for humor and improv skills.

Then read and re-read the next paragraph for the single fact that rectifies a major omission from history.

Larry Itliong was an Asian American of Filipino descent, who came to the U.S. in 1929, while the Philippines was a colony. Itliong was one of the group of men known as the “Manongs,” whose official status was colonized “American nationals.” They were looking for opportunity and became migrant workers in California’s fields and Alaska’s canneries. But he made his mark by being the one who actually began the historic 1965 Delano Grape Strike in Delano, Calif.

Yes, the very same grape strike that made Cesar Chavez famous wasn’t Chavez’ idea.

It was Itliong’s vision to merge the labor movement with civil rights to form one massive social justice movement that emanated from the breadbasket of our nation, the Central Valley of California.

The strike was declared on Sept. 5, 1965 by Itliong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the AFL-CIO at the headquarters in Stockton. But a strike vote had to be taken about three hours away by car in Delano, where the growers were and where most of the workers lived. On Sept. 7, the workers gathered at the Delano Community Center to make history. Their demand for $1.40 an hour was rejected by the growers. It was up to Itliong to call the question. Unanimously, all the workers raised their hands and the strike was on. The workers walked out the next day on Sept. 8.

The AWOC Filipinos went directly to the streets to picket. Chavez’ group, the National Farm Workers Association, wasn’t a real union at the time and stayed on the job. Chavez wasn’t convinced a strike.was the answer.

It took Itliong to convince him that the aging Filipino work force needed the young blood from the new migration of people from Mexico. Chavez eventually joined Itliong and the two groups formed the United Farm Workers. But it was always a clash of styles.

Itliong had a cackling laugh and was tough, crass, and ready for a fight.

Chavez always had a solemn nature, with a preference for non-violence and hunger strikes. As my old friend, Filipino community leader Ernie Mabalon, once criticized, “Marching behind the statue of the Virgin Mary is not a strike.”

Other Filipino leaders like Philip VeraCruz and Pete Velasco emerged within the UFW. By 1971, Itliong left the UFW but his job had been done.

He was the sparkplug of the movement.

At that very hall in Delano five years ago, more than 500 people gathered to remember the 50th year anniversary of the strike, and to honor the foresight and courage of Itliong.

I was there and interviewed Chavez’ son, Paul, who signaled to the crowd it was time to acknowledge the Filipinos were left out of the narrative.

“There are names lost in history, and today’s ceremony goes a long way to rectifying that,” he told me. “Of course, there were some hard feelings. Who would not be offended if they felt their contributions weren’t recognized.”

Five years later, things have progressed slowly in terms of rehabbing the history. Itliong is getting some of the notoriety and the recognition he deserves. For example, his face was among the logo images in the new PBS documentary on Asian Americans.

But to Alex Edillor, president of the Filipino American Historical Society’s Delano Chapter, Larry’s still not quite where he should be, and maybe will never be. He says even in Delano where he grew up, there’s still an uneasiness about what Larry and the Filipino strikers did.

“There’s a generation here that doesn’t know Itliong even in his home town,” Edillor told me by phone. He said that even five years ago, the number of people coming from the Bay Area and Los Angeles to honor Itliong at the 50th was greater than the Delano locals. Edillor said most of the Delano community had moved off the farms and had moved into the middle-class as professional workers.

In some ways, that was both progress (they were no longer ag workers). But it was a definite regression too. Itliong seemed to be forgotten by the Filipinos he fought hard to uplift..

Edillor recognizes the conflict. He says it was a big step for his mother and father to take that strike vote with Itliong to walk off the job.

“95 percent of the strikers were afraid,“ he told me. “It was frightening, but they did it.”

It was Itliong who convinced them it was time to stand up and fight.

Edillor, who was just in grade school at the time, recalls when his father came back from a picket line and found out the stipend promised was just $5 a week. “He was devastated,” Edillor told me. “It wasn’t nearly enough [to cover family expenses]. So you know the great strike wasn’t the cohesive movement in Delano itself.”

But the strike had an impact on national and global economies, affecting the importation of table grapes, as other fresh produce, and grape products like Gallo wine from California.

Edillor still gives tours to college kids in Delano about the strike. And this new generation of Filipinos and Asian American history students appreciates the impact Itliong had.

He also tells them about hanging out with Itliong as a teenager. “We lit his cigars,” Edillor said with a laugh. He also helped Itliong on what would become his passion after the UFW—politics beyond the union.

Itliong started the Filipino Voters League and, with Edillor and two other young buddies, canvassed the valley doing real grassroots politics.

“We worked with him until he couldn’t work anymore because of ALS, and we would be his hands and feet walking around the community with flyers and stuff,” Edillor recalled.

Itliong’s endorsements meant a lot at the local level, like when he got a win for a young progressive in the conservative valley. But he also was a national player and a supporter of Robert F. Kennedy for president in 1972. Other groups would offer him money to get him to back another major candidate. But Itliong never budged. He was as loyal to Kennedy as he was to the Filipino community.

The memory of Itliong helps Edillor feel the same buzz he gets after giving college kids a tour about Delano and the old Filipino unionists who followed Itliong and started the grape strike.

“I tell them, if you’re encouraged by the story of the manongs in Delano,“ Edillor said, “then continue that legacy through activism in any election.”

Like the one in November.

Let Itliong’s spirit continue to be the spark–not just to strike, but to register and vote.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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