Restoring Larry Itliong to his rightful place during Filipino American History Month

“You go to the United States where they pick money on trees,” Larry Itliong, the Filipino American labor leader and the equal to Cesar Chavez, says on a special tape recording of a classroom talk at Debra Panganiban Louie’s Asian American class at UC Santa Cruz in 1976.

“Did that happen? Hell, no,” adds Itliong, who found Filipinos working the fields for less than a dime an hour. Itliong knew a lot that happened that was left out of the history books. It’s one of the reasons we have a month officially dedicated to Filipino American History.

Today, on Oct. 16, Filipino American History Month gets the month all to itself. Half over, the month begins in earnest.

Since Sept. 15, October had also been concurrently National Hispanic Heritage Month, which notoriously double dips into two months and broadens its 30 days not unlike Imperial Spain. It does, however, honor the days that countries conquered by Spain in Latin America and Mexico celebrate their independence. But expansion into October means the inclusion of Columbus Day, which takes the spotlight off the Italian’s dirty deeds to the indigenous with the name Dia de la Raza. Thanks to Ronald Reagan in 1988, it’s all there as Public Law 100-402.

By contrast, the scope of the Filipino American month solely honors the actions of actual Filipinos in America, and is thus genuine American history. In 1991, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) began the commemoration, but it wasn’t until 2009 that House and Senate resolutions officially recognized October as Filipino American History Month.

So why October? (It’s not because Filipinos played in the World Series, though Tim Lincecum, part-Filipino, does have two WS rings.)

On Oct. 18, 1587, the very first Filipinos–some “Luzones Indios” traveling in a Spanish galleon—came ashore on the central coast of California. In Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo, a sign heralds the arrival of the first Filipinos to the continental U.S., 426 years ago to date.

October also has some special birthdays, though mine on the 9th is not the significant one. Oct. 25 is noteworthy, as it is the 100th birthday of labor leader Larry Itliong.

If you know Cesar Chavez, the Mexican American farmworker leader, then you should know Larry Itliong. The two should be forever linked, but somehow the linkage was lost.

Itliong became the great Filipino American historical omission.

While Chavez is remembered as the farmworker icon, his name emblazoned on schools, parks, and roads, Itliong has been generally forgotten, treated by society as it seems Filipinos have always been treated. As nothing.

But labor movement writers know that without Itliong, there would be no Chavez.

As an experienced union hand, Itliong had been organizing fellow Filipino workers in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Itliong, as leader of the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Committee, used old school labor tactics, like strikes. Chavez needed Itliong for the famous grape strike in Delano.

As veteran California labor writer Dick Meister wrote:

Chavez felt that his group, then called the National Farm Workers Association, wasn’t ready to strike itself, but would honor the picket lines of the striking Filipinos. Yet if they were to honor the picket lines of Itliong’s group, Chavez’ members asked, Why not strike themselves? Why not? And so they did. That became the grape strike of 1965 that drew worldwide attention and support and ultimately led to the unionization, at long last, of California’s farm workers. It was Larry Itliong and his Filipino members who started it all, and who played an indispensable role throughout the struggle.

Without them there could not have been a strike. Without them, there could not have been the victory of unionization, without them no right for the incredibly oppressed farm workers to bargain with their employers.

That’s what Filipinos did in America. But Chavez almost always gets 100 percent of the credit.

In many ways, the Chavez victory was just the circumstance of a generational shift in the workforce. In the ’60s, Mexico was close with a ready source of workers. The sheer size of Mexican labor overtook the flow of workers that had been supplied from the Philippines, as well as their leader, Itliong.

There were also the residual effects of being from a former U.S. colony. Filipinos simply got no respect. Itliong knew that from the very first day he came to America as a laborer in the 1920s. He was 16 with just a 6th grade education.

Unlike Chavez, Itliong was not a mysterious, charismatic figure, He was a streetwise guy, who chomped on cigars and lost three fingers in a cannery accident. Thus, the nickname “7 Fingers.” He was a guy who wouldn’t back down. Itliong knew both how to talk and fight.

“I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world,” he says on the tape to students in 1976, a year before he died at age 63. “I could make him think, and I could make them recognize that I’m a mean son of a bitch in terms of my direction fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country. Because I feel we are just as good as any of them. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You’ve got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you.”

Indeed, there was a lot to fight for. Itliong says Filipinos in the fields would too often find themselves netting less than 75 cents for an 8-hour day. And because of their status, they were barred from owning property, marrying, or starting families.

“Prior to 1936, we were nobody,” Itliong says on the taped lecture. “We’re not considered nationals, aliens, not considered citizens, we’re nothing. We are nothing in this country. It means you don’t have any kind of recognition.”

The correction of that broader slight could ultimately restore Itliong to his rightful role as a major labor leader in U.S. history, and is long overdue.

Itliong fought for the Filipinos, but only recently has there been a move to fight for him.

It may be because he was a fearless, loud, and very public Asian American of Filipino descent, with an open and blunt communication style.

“Lots of Pinoys don’t like me because I’m an outspoken person,” he said in the classroom tape. “If I don’t like you, I’ll tell you, you know. But if I know you’re wrong, I’ll tell you you’re wrong…But if you don’t tell me I’m wrong, how can I correct myself…and how can we progress? Especially in this country…Here in the United States, there’s very few of us. The least we can do is to be able to understand and be able to work with each other.”

There was nothing wrong with Itliong’s approach. Only with history’s failure to recognize his unwavering advocacy to empower exploited Filipino workers.

Itliong’s gift remains to this day a powerful model for Filipinos, and all Asian Americans.

Note: Itliong, who lived in both Delano and Stockton, will be remembered at a free symposium at San Joaquin Delta College-North Forum, on Saturday, Oct. 26 from 1 pm to 3 pm in Stockton.

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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