Larry Itliong Tapes II: How the Fil-Am labor leader didn’t sell out, and his comment on Cesar Chavez
On the weekend of his 100th birthday, it was the next best thing to having Larry Itliong there.
We didn’t have a special Ouija board, just a cassette tape with his voice.
At a symposium in his hometown of Stockton, California, the Filipino American National Historical Society unveiled excerpts of a “lost” tape of Itliong made during a seminar with UC Santa Cruz students a year before he died in 1977 from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In a previous AALDEF post, I wrote how the lecture showed Itliong still had the “fire for the fight.” He was tenacious and encouraged Filipinos to stand up for their rights.
But in the last 20 minutes when the seminar turned to question and answer, Itliong really let loose and talked candidly about how people often tried to “buy him off.”
Itliong, however, refused to sell out Filipinos.
In the last part of the lecture, Itliong also mentions for the only time during the seminar the man who overshadowed his legacy, Cesar Chavez. But he begins by dropping some other famous names.
Chicago’s tough boss Mayor Richard J. Daley? Itliong, a tough boss-type himself, liked Daley.
“Mayor Daley and I have a lot in common, you know,” Itliong said. “The old man is really something. He’s a lawyer.”
Itliong continued: “I know a lot of politicians. The Kennedys, the Humphreys, Walter Mondale. I have breakfast with them. An igorot like me.”
Itliong liked to refer to himself in a self-deprecating way, using the term Igorot, an indigenous mountain people of the Philippines.
“And why am I treated well by politicians?” he asked rhetorically. “Because I am not afraid,” Itiong said. “How many Filipinos given that kind of privilege that you know?”
The truth is there weren’t many.
But Itliong’s fearlessness commanded respect.
Chavez may be famous for saying “Si se puede.”
Itliong should be famous for being fearless in his saying no.
He knew he didn’t have to go along with the powerful. And if he was offered money, he says he didn’t hesitate to turn it down.
“A lot want to buy me off,” Itliong told the students. “One of the biggest organizations that I grew up with in this country offered me $200,000.”
Itliong described the offer: “They said, Larry Itliong, we know you need money. You’re doing a good job in California. We’ll give you $200,000 to do whatever you want to do.”
But then he described the conditions.
The money would be his…”if you’re going to help Cesar Chavez run the service center,” he says on the tape. “Just the implication that I’m supporting Cesar Chavez, they want to give me $200,000.”
This was after he left the United Farm Workers union early as a VP to Chavez. It was as if the union acknowledged Chavez needed Itliong to unify the two biggest groups in the fields, the Mexicans and the Filipinos.
“You know what I tell them,” he said. “I don’t need that $200,000. I can eat rice and pusit (squid), bagong (anchovy paste), mango. I don’t need $200,000.”
He said young Pinoys with him were amazed at the time by his refusal.
“I said, $200,000 to sell out my countrymen?,” Itliong asked rhetorically. “I figure we have about 350,000 Filipinos in California. That’s only $200,000. That’s not even $1 dollar a head. No, I don’t want your money. If I want to sell my countrymen, then give me $50 million–I’ll take it.”
So Itliong did name his price, but as he told the story, he laughed with the students in the seminar. “Do you want to buy my countrymen, give me $50 million?”
Itliong said it wasn’t an isolated instance either.
“They tried to buy me many times,” Itliong said on tape. “In 1971, when I quit the union, I asked my boss, the director of organization. I have no money, why not give me a severance of $5,000. Know what the guy told me, and I worked 16 years? ‘We don’t have any money like that.’ That was in 1971.”
“In 1972, they need my help,” Itliong continued. “They call me 2 o’clock in the morning. ‘You know Larry, we have $25,000. I want you to do something for me. I want you to support Hubert Humphrey.”
“I said, yeah, but he’s not my candidate,” Itliong said.
But they came back. “All you have to do is say in public you support Hubert Humphrey.” Itliong said. “That’s all they wanted me to do. But I didn’t do it. Because I already made my commitment to a particular candidate.
“When I needed money, they didn’t have $5,000. But when they need to use my name they want to give me $25,000. They found the money. How about that?”
Itliong didn’t identify the candidate.
In his later years, employers, even the Catholic Church, wanted to buy Itliong to be a consultant.
But the way Itliong saw it, he was a man of principle who couldn’t be bought.
It was the highlight of the last segment and impressed the students.
It impressed me even today.
Hearing the tapes again at their first-ever public showcase practically moved Debbie Paganiban Louie to tears (see her interview at https://amok.com). She’d only played the tapes twice 37 years after she recorded her UC Santa Cruz seminar in 1976.
But the lessons were already deeply ingrained in her from the start.
“His courage and wisdom in fighting for equality and justice for Filipinos and workers everywhere should be acknowledged widely and revered for all time,” she said.
It’s been said that historians and journalists overlooked Itliong and looked uncritically at Chavez, because of the latter’s charismatic sense that came from adopting the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Dr. King.
That was a stark contrast to a battle-hardened Itliong, who saw decades of often violent racism in the fields but who still evolved into a principled union man.
So Chavez may have been the man who said yes, “Si Se Puede.”
But Itliong revered and respected workers, and he leveraged it cunningly through the force of the labor strike, simply by knowing the power of saying no.
As one Itliong loyalist and his longtime Stockton friend, the late Ernesto Mabalon, once said of Chavez, “Marching 366 miles behind a statue of the Virgin Mary is not a strike.”
The record will soon be amplified.
Chavez needed Itliong to show him the way.