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Remembering the Filipino American origins of the Delano grape strike

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies | September 8, 2015

Sept. 8, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Delano Grape Strike. The historical significance of the five-year strike was and is profound. It catalyzed the modern farmworkers’ movement for fair wages, the right to organize, and the recognition of the dignity of their labor.

The strike involved both Filipino and Mexican American labor leaders and farmworkers who overcame their fears of violence and, among themselves, cultural mistrust in order to advocate for justice for all workers. Under the leadership of veteran Filipino American labor organizer Larry Itliong, the predominantly Filipino American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee gathered at the Filipino Community Hall and voted to strike.

Filipino farmworker with bullhorn

Still from “Delano Manongs” movie trailer (click to view)

On Sept. 8, 1965, approximately 1,500 Filipino American farmworkers (most of them elders called “Manongs”) walked out of the fields, leaving ripe grapes on the ground as they demanded fair wages and humane working conditions. They remained militant in the face of eviction from their homes and violent encounters with law enforcement.

To deter growers from hiring scab workers to divide and weaken the striking farmworkers, Itliong reached out to César Chávez to ask if his mostly Mexican American National Farm Workers Association would join the strike. The United Farm Workers Organizing Committee emerged from the joined forces of AWOC and NFWA. Chávez and Itliong were at its helm, serving as the UFW’s director and assistant director, respectively, from 1966-1971. From this union, the modern farmworkers movement was born.

This movement raised public consciousness about the exploitive working conditions that farmworkers endured in the fields through the 1960s. It’s ironic that the laborers who nourished the masses by growing, tending, and harvesting fruits and vegetables were doing so in unsafe and inhumane work environments and for meager wages. The UFW illuminated the harsh, unfair conditions under which laborers were forced to work and their demands for change resonated with citizens and consumers on regional, national, and international levels. The Delano Grape Strike launched one of the most significant movements for social justice in the second half of the twentieth century.

book cover

Dawn Mabalon’s 2013 Little Manila Is in the Heart documents contributions of Filipino farmworkers.

While the leaders of Mexican American laborers, most notably César Chávez, and the participation of Mexican American farmworkers are more well-known to the general public (most recently with the release of the movie about Chávez’ life and work), the formative role played by Filipino American labor leaders, such as Larry Itliong, in the Delano Grape Strike has been for the most part overlooked and obscured.

The modifier “forgotten” is often used to describe Filipino Americans in books and news articles (most notably by Fred Cordova in his groundbreaking work). This cultural amnesia includes the broader histories of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines (1898-1946), the active recruitment of Filipino laborers to Hawaii and the mainland United States in the 1920s and early 1930s, and of Filipino American labor organizing among sugar plantation workers in Hawaii, and cannery workers in the Pacific Northwest as well as the agricultural fields of California in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Politicians, community leaders, and scholars have contested this erasure in multiple ways. California State Assemblyman Rob Bonta has sponsored two successful bills: one calling for students in grades 7 to 12 to learn about the role of immigrants, including Filipino Americans, in the farm labor movement, and the other creating a Larry Itliong Day to be celebrated on October 25. Assemblyman Bonta grew up in a trailer several hundred yards from César Chávez’s home and observed his parents organize both Filipino American and Mexican American workers.

This past weekend, a newly-formed Delano chapter of FANHS (Filipino American National Historical Society) hosted a celebration titled “Bold Step,” which paid tribute to the Filipino American historical origins of the Delano Grape Strike on its fiftieth anniversary.

book cover

Patty Enrado’s debut novels traces the lost dreams of the “last manong.”

One of the most important aspects of an historical anniversary date is that it promotes learning and further study. For those of us who never knew about this history or who would like to learn more, there are new engaging resources available.

Historian Dawn Mabalon’s book Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Duke University Press, 2013) meticulously and passionately documents the labor struggles and contributions of Filipino farm workers, including Itliong, who called Stockton home when they were not in the fields.

Filmmakers Marissa Aroy and Niall McKay’s Emmy-nominated documentary film “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Workers” tells the story of Itliong and other Filipino American farm workers who began the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.

Writer Patty Enrado’s debut novel, A Village in the Fields (Eastwind Books of Berkeley, 2015), is based on her own family’s history as well as oral interviews and archival research. The novel traces the lost dreams and sacrifices of Fausto Empleo, “the last manong,” at the home of retired farm workers in Delano, Calif.

On this 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, our historical amnesia about the role of Filipinos in U.S. histories of expansionism, migration, and labor must change.  Thankfully that change is underway.

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