UNION CITY – The Filipino community in this city will have to wait until next month to see if their middle school will be the first U.S. school named after two Filipino American heroes–labor leaders who were part of the historic strike that changed labor laws.
It seems innocuous to an outsider: Why would changing the name of a school be a game-changer. Yet, the battle line has been set. It’s community vs. council, heart vs. mind.
To a large number in the Filipino American community, changing the name of the Alvarado Middle School in honor of Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz would be the culmination of a 13-year struggle.
To the Alvarado Middle School Site Council, the proposed change comes at a time when the school is strapped for funds, and the money can conceivably be better put to use for other school needs.
But California Senator Leeland Yee, educator and author Oscar Penaranda, community activist Ben Menor and other leaders have spoken about the long time neglect of Itliong and Vera Cruz.
A learning experience
Through their outspoken efforts, many second generation Fil-Ams students learned how Itliong, Vera Cruz and other “manongs” organized the strike against the Delano grape growers on September 8, 1965; how they rallied about 1,500 Filipino farm workers to protest lowered wages and inhumane working conditions.
The film “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW” documented a different world when Filipinos (among the first wave of immigrants) were allowed only farm work in temperatures reaching 110 degrees, when pesticides had no label and crop dusting happened without much warning. The farm hands had no names and were all called “Boy.”
Larry Itliong was already arranging strikes and walkouts since the 1930s with his mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).
In September 1965, the Filipinos continued to strike despite violence from hired thugs and the authorities. When the grape growers tried to bring in Mexican workers to replace the Filipinos on strike, Itliong and others persuaded Cesar Chavez and his mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to join the Filipinos for a stronger front.
Initially, Chavez said he was not ready and needed to wait for two or three more years.
But after almost a week, Chavez did join Itliong. Together, they founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Chavez emerged as its head while Itliong became an assistant in 1966. The strike lasted almost five years but it made the world pay attention to the plight of the underpaid and exploited farm worker. By 1970, a major California grape grower signed a contract with the UFW.
The following year, the unity was fractured. Contributing to this were the now dominant Spanish medium of communication used by union leaders and new UFW hiring policies. Feeling powerless under Chavez, Itliong resigned from the UFW and fell into oblivion. In 1977 Vera Cruz resigned from the UFW.
It has been suggested by more than one account that the rift between Vera Cruz and Chavez was deepened when Chavez decided to visit former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos the same year Vera Cruz quit the UFW. Vera Cruz thought that Marcos was a dictator.
According to many, the chroniclers of history only remembered Chavez. Curiously, the cause to remember Itliong and Vera Cruz attracted not only adult grass-roots activists, but also middle school students in search of their identity and culture.
Some causes call for the rewriting of history textbooks, others for marches to Sacramento. But to many Filipino Americans, changing the name of a school in memory of two pivotal labor leaders who sparked the change in union laws is also important.
“Know history, know self and know wealth!” has become the battle cry of the students of Filipino Heritage Studies classes at Logan High. Last Saturday, they drummed up community awareness by organizing a free public performance event.
It was social awareness in the vernacular of Filipino Martial Arts, rap and break dance. All throughout the performance, the message repeated was to go out and show a strong presence to support the cause when the New Haven Board of Education met on the issue last night.
Some 200 students showed up at the hearing. But the heated debate did not seem to resolve the issue. In the end, the board announced that a name change was already planned, but the question was what would be the name.
Councilman Jim Navarro reportedly assured the board and the community that money for the name change will not be taken from the school district. The memory of former California Governor Juan Alvarado will not be forgotten because near the middle school already stands the Alvarado Elementary school. Also, it took 12 years to name the New Haven Middle School after Cesar Chavez.
However it turns out, both Itliong and Vera Cruz were “manongs” in the literal Ilocano sense of the word. Itliong was born in Pangasinan while Vera Cruz was born in Saoag, Ilocos Sur. Itliong died at 63 in 1977; Vera Cruz at 89 in 1994.