Sep 6, 2017

Humans tend to select the information we remember. In history, we are most likely to remember heroes like Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, but we forget about unpopular yet also significant heroes like Agueda Kahabagan who was hailed as the only female general of the Army of the Filipino Republic. Perhaps we knew and remembered them for our history classes. And their memories only remained in the classroom and in the minds of those who really care.

In American history, there is a Filipino hero we ourselves may have never heard of yet. His name is Larry Itliong.

Itliong was born on Oct. 25, 1913 in San Nicolas, Pangasinan. According to Itliong’s son Johnny, he knows how to speak various Philippine dialects, Cantonese, and Japanese. He is also remembered as “an excellent card player and avid cigar smoker” and as a man who learned the law by attending trials.

At 15, he moved to the United States of America to—like many OFWs now—seek a better life. By the time he set foot there, The Great Depression just began. According to Inquirer, the economic struggle led him to take a job at the railroads and as a migrant farmer.

When you’re in a foreign land, hardwork is essential for survival. However, Itliong strived for labor justice. He joined labor strikes of lettuce farmers in Washington and he helped organize a workers’ union when he worked for a cannery in Alaska. However, it was his efforts with grape farmers in California that made history.

On Sept. 8, 1965, he gathered Filipino farm workers in the Filipino Community Hall to organize a strike. Hundreds of his fellows agreed to join the strike against poor working conditions and extremely low pay. “The next morning they went out to the vineyard, and then they left the crop on the ground, and then they walked out,” Dawn Mabalon, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, told National Public Radio. “They’re led by this really charismatic, veteran, seasoned, militant labor leader Larry Itliong.”

The Delano Grape Strike also marked the union between Filipino and Mexican migrant workers. “In popular culture, it’s seen as a Chicano movement, not as the multiethnic alliance that it actually was,” Mabalon told The New York Times. “Cesar Chavez and others had been organizing Mexican workers around Delano for a few years, but a strike wasn’t in their immediate plan,” Lisa Morehouse wrote in an article for NPR. However, it was Itliong who encouraged Chavez to join them. Two weeks later, Itliong became Chavez’s assistant director and Mexicans joined the Filipinos in a nonviolent strike involving fasting and marching.

For over 100 years, farm workers made efforts to fight the oppression. However, they always end up defeated. The Delano Grape Strike was the only successful effort. They gained the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And  Senator Robert F. Kennedy who called the laborers as “heroic figures.” After the strike, table grape growers signed their first union contract.

Chavez is the primary hero of the Delano Grape Strike, at least that’s what people remember. “I’d known of Cesar Chavez and Hispanics being involved. Being Filipino, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Filipinos actually made an impact in the process. It makes me proud that they were involved,” said Melanie Retuda. “It was not taught—or talked about—at all,” Anhelica Perez, whose grandmother participated in the Delano Grape Strike added.

It’s quite baffling how history (or maybe our collective memory) eliminates certain pieces of information. Itliong is considered as one of the fathers of the West Coast labor movements, yet his name is not found is history textbooks until a bill recently required schools to teach students about his contribution to American history. “History was changed, but those stories weren’t being told in the history books, weren’t being captured, and it was important to me for that to change especially in the most diverse state in the country,” Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta said.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill declaring Oct. 25 as Larry Itliong Day. However, a date in memory of Itliong is meaningless if we don’t even know the man behind the name. And a name is nothing but a mere signifier when we don’t know what the advocacy of the man who bore that name. Itliong’s recognition as one of the heroes of the Delano Grape Strike is, as Alex Edillor, whose parents joined the strike, “not only a point of pride, it’s a point of fact.”

Header image courtesy of Farmworker Movement Documentation Project/University of California San Diego Library 

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TAGS: Cesar Chavez Delano Grape Strike Larry Itliong migrant workers