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Philip Vera Cruz and Cesar Chavez

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A mural in Filipinotown in Los Angeles featuring Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong

When I wrote last week that “like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez before him, Alex Esclamado saw America as an unfinished ideal in which everyone must work to make of it an America of social justice and equality”, a reader, Noel, commented that “it’s a bit too much to compare Alex to Martin Luther King and Chavez.”

Exactly why “it’s a bit too much” Noel did not explain. I can only surmise that perhaps Noel believes Filipinos should never be compared to great people like Rev. Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez because of flaws in the Filipino character. This self-awareness of his own personal flaws prevents people like Noel from conceiving the possibility that a Filipino like him could ever achieve greatness.

I once heard a speaker lament the tendency of some of these Filipinos to always believe the worst of others like him. When people speak positively of a Filipino, he said, there seems to be this knee-jerk compunction to somehow denigrate that Filipino and ridicule the praise with a snide aside like “maniwala ako sa iyo” (you don’t really expect me to believe that, do you?) On the other hand, when someone reveals some negative news about the Filipino, the response is to express vindication like “sinabi ko na nga ba! Di ba?” (I knew it! Didn’t I tell you?)

The author’s wedding with Philip Vera Cruz as ninong along with Fred Cordova

I never met Cesar Chavez, although I worked with the Filipino farm workers in Delano at Agbayani Village for many years in the 1970s. All I know of him is what I read from the accounts of other people. I have no reason to doubt that he deserves to have streets, schools and parks named after him. Three US states even honor his birthday as official state holidays. After all, to honor Cesar, as Fred Hirsch wrote, is to “honor the workers who sow, grow and harvest the fruits of the earth to earn their wages and concurrently fulfill our most basic needs. His story is used as a catalyst to honor those workers in their organized struggle to win just remuneration for their labor and their rightfully dignified place in society.”

Other than Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, of whom there are US streets, parks and even a bridge in Seattle named in his honor, there are none for local Filipino American labor leaders like Pablo Manlapit, Larry Itliong or Philip Vera Cruz, writers like Carlos Bulosan or publishers like Alex Esclamado.

When it comes to Alex Esclamado, I do not need to rely on what other people say about him because I worked closely with him for 35 years. I knew him when he initiated the campaign to obtain US citizenship for Filipino WW II veterans and to rescind the 1946 Rescission Act. Without his able leadership, it is doubtful that Congress would have passed the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill that has provided more than $300 million in compensation to more than 24,000 Filipino WW II veterans.

Cover of Philip Vera Cruz’ book

Without his leadership of the US opposition to the Marcos dictatorship, the US might not have withdrawn its support for the Marcos family and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. would be the autocratic ruler of the Philippines today. Without his perseverance and vision, there would not be a National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) with 12 regional chapters all over the US advocating for the rights and interests of Filipinos in the US.

I know that if he were still alive today, my wedding ninong, Filipino American labor leader Philip Vera Cruz, would assure Noel that it is not “a bit too much” to compare Alex Esclamado to Cesar Chavez as he knew both of them.

Philip was born in Ilocos Sur in 1905 and immigrated to the US in 1926 working for the next 30 years in menial jobs in farms and canneries all over the US. In the 1950s, he moved to California and, together with Larry Itliong, organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) which launched the Delano Grape Strike in 1965.

Philip first met Alex in 1965 when Alex led a Food Caravan from the San Francisco Bay Area where his newspaper, The Philippine News, had organized a drive to collect canned goods from the Filipino community to support the striking Filipino farm workers.

In that same year, Cesar Chavez, the head of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), went to Delano to meet with Vera Cruz and Itliong and their AWOC members to unite their Filipino and Mexican farm worker associations to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Chavez as the president and Itliong, Vera Cruz and Dolores Huerta as his vice-presidents.

In the book about his life, “Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement” (University of Washington Press), written by Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, Philip provides an account of his sharp conflict with Cesar Chavez on a certain issue.

In August of 1977, after the UFW and Cesar Chavez had gained national and international prominence, Philippine Dictator Ferdinand Marcos invited Chavez to visit the Philippines. It would be a propaganda coup for him if Chavez accepted. A pro-Marcos UFW leader, Andy Imutan, was tasked with convincing Chavez that his acceptance of Marcos’ invitation would be popular with Filipino farm workers from the Ilocos region where Marcos was born.

At a UFW Board meeting where the Marcos invitation was brought up, Cesar turned to Philip, who recalls the exchange as follows:

“Well, Philip, what do you think?” and I said, “No, I don’t approve of it. I don’t like the form of government Marcos has created because it’s very oppressive. It’s a dictatorship. There are thousands of political prisoners; people are arrested without charges or benefit of trial.” I could see that after Chris and I spoke, Cesar wasn’t in the mood to listen anymore. I know how he gets. It doesn’t do any good if I kept talking so I just shut up. Then Cesar said, “Well, all right” and he moved right on to the next order of business and that’s all that was said about that issue.”

At the next UFW Board meeting, Cesar had secured the votes to approve his visit to Manila (Philip cast the only dissenting vote) allowing him to visit the Philippines as the guest of the dictatorship with all his expenses shouldered by the Marcos government. In Manila, Cesar appeared with Marcos and was quoted as saying that Marcos’ martial law appeared to be helping the Filipino people.

In the book, Philip reflects on Cesar’s Manila visit: “What Cesar did there in the Philippines is the saddest day in the history of the farm workers movement in this country. It was a disgrace. Cesar was toasting Marcos with all those phony labor leaders appointed by Marcos at the presidential palace while, at the same time, on the other side of Manila, the real union leaders were in jail.”

When he returned to California, Cesar invited Marcos’ labor minister, Blas Ople, to speak at the UFW national convention in August of 1977. After Ople told the UFW delegates that the Filipino people support Marcos, Philip rose to challenge that assertion but was prevented from doing so by Cesar Chavez.

Philip asked him why he wasn’t allowed to speak. “Cesar said to me “because you’re going to insult him (Ople).” That’s exactly what Cesar said to me then. So what could I do?…You can see what a sad state of affairs Cesar had come to when he was officially gagging a union officer who had been with the union since its inception while allowing a representative of a right-wing foreign government a free voice to speak to the union rank and file.”

In the union elections that followed, Cesar Chavez was reelected union president by acclamation. But Philip Vera Cruz, the UFW 2nd Vice-President from the inception of the Union, was not even nominated. Instead, another Chicano replaced Philip, thus removing the last Filipino to hold a leadership post in a union that came into being because of the Delano Strike of 1965 that was initiated by the Filipino farm workers.

Other than a mural in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, there are no monuments to Philip Vera Cruz anywhere in the US nor to Alex Esclamado. One reason is perhaps because there are Filipinos like Noel who consider it “a bit too much” to even speak of Alex in the same breath as Cesar Chavez.

(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/45SLBMTPH3UCDDOBFQLPQFAYHI Don

    I hope Noel, whoever he is, would use his sense of fairness and rethink his position as he tries to marginalize the greatness of Mr. Alex Esclamado.

    But I’m certain of one thing: History, in later years, will judge Alex Esclamado as one of the greatest Filipino-Americans that ever walked the face of the earth.

    I can feel a great personal sadness to hear such unkind words coming from someone who is of Filipino-descent (if Noel is, indeed, one), in order to disrespect a man who was fearless and courageous enough to stand up to the Marcos’ dictatorship. Alex stood up to Marcos when no other Fil-Am publishers in the Unired States would. He did it without any thought of private gain or personal grandeur. He did it because he refused to compromise his principles and as a way of taking up the cudgels for the long-suffering Filipino people. 

    If Alex’s courageous and self-abnegating acts don’t qualify him to stand alongside Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Labor Advocate, Cesar Chavez, then I don’t know what it takes for one to have the honor.

    Where was Noel when Alex was still around that he wasn’t there to bear witness to the emergence of a man—the sincere and passionate leader—who took on his dual responsibilities as a courageous newspaper publisher, who fought Marcos and his evil cabal, and as a devoted and caring husband and a father, who, in all those years, together with his family, had been subjected to constant threats by those Marcos minions operating in this country?

    By all accounts, Marcos, in his desire to silence Alex, offered him millions of dollars but he refused. Marcos’ machinations, ultimately, left Alex in financial ruin. And someone doesn’t see that as an act so noble and sublime?

    I met Alex once in Chicago, earlier this decade, when his was in the process of recruiting members for an organization that is now known as NaFFAA. While he lacked the stature, he was a giant of a man when he spoke. That event was covered and published by the Philippine Weekly. an ethnic Chicagoland area publication owned by my friend, Orly Bernardino. I was with Orly covering Alex’s entire stay in Chicago.

    Like Rodel, I’m perplexed as to why Noel would make the comment that “it’s a bit too much to compare Alex to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chavez.” Well, let me tell you this Noel: “The depth and breadth of a person’s greatness can not be measured by ignorants and fools, only wise men can.” 
     
    Don Azarias   

  • http://www.facebook.com/SanghaV Sangha Vicente

    What a long and boring column if I ever came across one. 

    • 7Rodel77

       Why don’t you just stick to reading your short and sweet Twitter messages. Leave the “long and boring” articles to grown-ups.

  • tra6Gpeche

    One way or another, I am also guilty of such, Mr. Rodis. I distrust and doubt most, if not all, Filipino leaders inside and outside of the Philippines. First, it was Datu Humabon who wanted, a true and first hero, Rajah Lapu-lapu killed. Then, a sister of a certain Teodoro Patiño betrayed the Katipunan of Gat Andres Bonifacio, Then, Mr. Emilio Aquinaldo had him and his brother, Procopio Bonifacio, killed by his fellow Caviteños. Then, the Filipino Macabebes, who sided with the Americans, betrayed the forces of Mr. Emilio Aguinaldo. Then, here came Martial Law that suppressed the Philippine Constitution. Then, the Dictatorship of Mr. Marcos Sr. had many good Filipinos and Mr Benigno Aquino Sr assassinated by the Philippine Military. No one had been punished except the lowly soldiers. Those who stole and robbed the Philippine Treasury during Martial Law are still enjoying their loot. Now, here comes all these current corrupt & incompetent Political leaders in the Senate, Congress and other elected Filipinos all enriching themselves (& their families) while in office. Political family dynasties are mushrooming in the Philippines while most Filipinos are getting poorer and poorer and will do anything to get out of the country to work and live even in a very remote and dangerous unknown country. The Filipino women go to the Middle East & other countries just to become “world class” Domestic helpers. Filipino leaders and ordinary Filipinos are all unconcerned about the garbage, feces, urine and other disgusting human waste in Pasig and other rivers & creeks. Now, Mr. Rodis, could you tell me something good enough that would make me forget all of these so I can start trusting and believing the Filipino leaders in and out of the Philippines? Mr. Esclamado was definitely a leader and might have done something special but his accomplishment(s) will have to really be felt first before trust can be given to him. Nevertheless, I really do hope that with the passage of time, Mr. Esclamado, Mr. Carlos Bulosan, Mr. Larry Itliong and Mr. Philip Vera Cruz will be called great Filipinos in America.

  • DATAN

    Give me a break, don’t dare to compare Alex with the kind of Cesar Chavez and the great Martin l. King..They are proven to be great leaders and have a bunch of followers…Alex is just like Kabayan giving news information and maybe adding his positive/negative opinion…Nothing else…

    • 7Rodel77

       Datan, when I was writing the third paragraph of my article, I must have had you in mind. You have a totally superficial and banal knowledge of what Alex has done for the Filipino American community over the last 50 years. To compare him to Kabayan serves only to expose your total ignorance. 

  • parengtony

    I wonder if Cesar Chavez ever addressed the issues so frankly stated here by the writer. Nakakapikon base sa pananaw ni Ka Phillip Vera Cruz.

  • aqparas

    If I may still express my humble homage to Alex Esclamado

    Some of you are indeed fortunate to have worked with and known Alex for a long time. He is a Filipino hero. You have worked with his barrier breaking efforts for the betterment of Filipinos both in the Philippines and overseas. These are really huge undertakings. But Alex Esclamado is everywhere that needed his presence to promote Filipino empowerment; big or small. He was also present in small towns guiding small town FilAms. He was in small town Hercules, CA and I, an unknown individual from the small town Hercules have some fond memories of working with Alex in my own small way. I first met Alex in the early 80’s. Being a Mayor, Councilmember and President of various Filipino American Associations in our area, I would be asked to deliver to Alex invitations for him to be the guest of honor of our event s. I would oblige since this gave me the opportunity of getting to know the man and learn from him. When I migrated to the US in 1982, I started as a Republican. But in one of our several talks he explained to me the support that many minorities like Filipino Americans in the U.S. are getting from the Democratic Party to become better Americans. And this he said to me would result into a better America for all. I converted to being a Democrat!

    Time came when he would call me to attend his and other meetings on FilAm empowerment.

    I read from Rodel’s writing on Alex about the story of Alex challenging a carabao in the rice paddies of his hometown Leyte. Rodel’s narration reminded me that Alex is not only a mental genius, he could also be physical. While I was the campaign manager for a FilAm who was running for a council seat in Hercules, there was a Filipino American who was into all kinds of trouble and was working against my FilAm candidate. I called Alex for help because I knew that he knew the guy. Alex’s reaction to my call for help was, and I will try to quote him as accurately as I remember. He said “Hintayin mo ako, pupunta ako diyan sa Hercules at susuntukin ko siya” (wait for me, I will go to Hercules and punch that guy). He came to Hercules, angry and ready for “action”; fortunately the trouble maker could not be found. Alex then helped us strategize to repair the damage done by the trouble maker. Our FilAm candidate won!

    Rest in peace, Alex. Sooner or later we’ll all join you and we can continue FilAm empowerment up above. May God bless you, Alex.

    ANDY PARAS

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