Do you know labor leader Larry Itliong or Philip Vera Cruz? If you said, no, don’t worry, you are not alone. A few know their story. But thanks to a documentary and community efforts in California, the Filipino farm workers are finally finding their place in history.
September marks the 51st Anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, which was led by Itliong and Vera Cruz. The Filipino farmworkers – 1500 strong — put their tools down and walked off the grape fields to fight for better wages and working conditions.
“There is no toilets, there is no running water, “ explained historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon. “They share water out of the same tin cup, dozens of men, warm water in a tip cup passing the cup around. No toilet paper. Brutal heat in the Central Valley. It can get up to past 100 degrees in April or May even. So absolute brutal working conditions.”
What the farm workers didn’t realize when they walked off that day was they were making history, setting in motion one of the biggest strikes in U.S. labor history, ultimately leading to the creation of the United Farm Workers Union. The strike made Mexican American Cesar Chavez a household name.
“I think the media really gravitated to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the Mexican elements of the union and really didn’t put a lot of attention on the Filipinos, which is unfortunate, because if it wasn’t for the Filipinos walking off the fields, calling the strike on Sept. 7, then going on strike the next day, Sept. 8 1965, there would have been no United Farm Workers, there would have been no Delano grape strike, “ said Mabalon, who works as a professor of history at San Francisco State University.
A few weeks into the strike, Itliong convinced Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who had been organizing Mexican and Mexican American workers to join them on the strike. According to Mabalon, the farm owners were pitting the workers along ethnic lines and Itliong knew a united front would have more impact.
The Delano Grape strike lasted a long five years, finally settled after a grape consumer boycott. In 1970, the farmers signed a contract with the newly formed United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, the president, made history. Itliong, Vera Cruz and the other Filipinos faded into history.
“These were older men… in their 60s and Larry Itliong died five years later after they got this big contract that they wanted. So nobody was there to really tell their story,” explained Emmy award winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy. So Aroy, who grew up near California’s farming community, decided she would tell their story. Aroy and her husband, Niall McKay, produced the documentary, Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers.
For many Filipinos, including Mabalon, whose father knew Itliong, the documentary was the long awaited recognition of the Filipino’s forgotten contributions.
“For my nieces and nephew, to be able to see that film and to be able to see their grandfather’s friend and to see the people in Stockton celebrated, people in the Central Valley celebrated, these very ordinary people who did extraordinary things. And for them to think these are my Uncles, these are my grandparents, I can do extraordinary things too,” she said.
For more on the Filipino farmworkers watch this month’s episode of Asian American Life:
FORGOTTEN FILIPINO AMERICAN HEROES51 years ago this week, Filipino migrant workers changed American history. We take a close look at the farm labor movement. #LarryItliong #DelanoManongs #PhilipVeraCruz #FilipinoFarmWorkers
Posted by Asian American Life on Friday, September 9, 2016
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