‘Delano Manongs,’ the story ‘Cesar Chavez’ the movie ignored
“They’re gone now, but before they fade away like ghosts into the past, here is their story,” begins the narrator in “Delano Manongs,” a moving chronicle of an important chapter in Filipino American history.
In fact, it’s an important chapter in US history, but one that was pretty much erased in a recent major movie about that period.
“Delano Manongs,” directed by Marissa Aroy, is the story that filmmaker Diego Luna cast aside in “Cesar Chavez,” the film about the Mexican American labor leader who figured prominently in the historic farm workers protest in California in the 1960s.
In “Cesar Chavez,” the movie, Chavez is the Moses-like figure who leads farm workers to a victorious campaign for better pay and work conditions, a struggle that drew national attention and turned the United Farm Workers union into a major political force.
The real story was more complicated, and far more dramatic, than that told by the film.
As I noted in a previous column, in Diego Luna’s version of what happened, the Filipinos ended up as Asian sidekicks, minor, insignificant characters in a major historic battle they actually helped shape and lead.
“Delano Manongs” paints a different, more complete picture.
In the half-hour documentary, the Filipinos, led by labor leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, are rightfully given a bigger share of the spotlight.
After all, contrary to Diego Luna’s film, it was they who took the bold first step toward ending decades of farm worker oppression.
They led, and Chavez followed — not the other way around.
In the film, even Dolores Huerta, Chavez’s famous ally, pays tribute to the Filipinos, saying, “The thing about the Filipino workers was they were very united. They stuck together.”
“Delano Manongs” explains why the Filipinos eventually realized that sticking together was not enough. For no matter how united they were as one ethnic group, they could never achieve meaningful reforms in the fields without uniting with other groups, especially the Mexicans.
So when the Delano strike, which the Filipinos launched in 1965 started to lose steam, Itliong, Vera Cruz and other leaders took what was, in many ways, then a bold step — they reached out to the Mexicans and called for unity.
It was a courageous move, and there was no guarantee it would work. That’s because, the Filipinos and the Mexicans had survived and struggled for decades as separate groups.
At times, in fact, they were rivals.
“Growers like to play off of the ethnic groups,” former farm worker Alex Fabros explains in “Delano Manongs.” “You can always break a strike. If the Mexicans are striking, you call in the Filipinos and pay them a nickel more. When the Filipinos go on strike, the Mexicans are going to cross over and scaband they get to make the money. So no one ever really wins.”
Which is why the decision of the Filipino leaders to reach out to the Mexicans was a critical turning point. As “Delano Manongs” shows, Chavez at first refused the offer. He thought the time was not right and his group wasn’t ready for unity.
It was Itliong, Vera Cruz and the other Filipinos who took who essentially said, “We have to do this now.”
Eventually, Chavez was convinced they were right and rallied the Mexicans to support the Filipinos. “Delano Manongs” retells the historic vote that turned the strike started by the Filipinos into a historic battle.
The documentary recalls a moving scene at the Filipino community center in Delano. Mexican farm worker activists who had just voted to join the strike suddenly entered the hall, surprising some of the Filipinos. They had come to join their new comrades for breakfast.
“It was really beautiful,” Huerta says as she recalled how the Filipino center in Delano became a focal point of the strike.
It was a moving, dramatic moment, one that an artist, a storyteller seeking to represent an important but ignored history would certainly seek to recapture, retell and highlight. No need to make anything up for a movie. The drama was right there — but Diego Luna and his team chose to ignore it.
Delano Manong also points to another little known injustice in what is generally remembered as a triumph for US workers: Filipino farm workers, who took the daring first step that launched the UFW, ended up getting the raw end of the deal in the contract that the growers finally agreed to sign.
“There was plenty of anger among the Filipinos,” Fabros told me. This was based largely on the perception that “the Mexicans forced the Filipinos from their jobs.”
Itliong speaks of his own frustration in the film.
“To tell you the truth I’ve never taken the shit that I’ve been taking in this organization,” he says in an audio interview. “But I do it because I think it’s bigger than me for the farm worker to have an organization. It’s the reason I do it.”
Itliong is the undisputed hero of this film, the strong, courageous, wise leader who knew what had to be done, and pushed harder to get it done.
“I’m gonna be very frank with you,” he says in the film. “I have all kinds of guts. You know I’m not scared of anybody. I’m a son-of-a-bitch in terms of fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country.”
“Delano Manongs” will be screened at the Manilatown Heritage Center in San Francisco on May 10. For more information, please check out the Manilatown Center site at https://manilatown-heritage-foundation.org
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