The month that changed Filipino-American history
From the time Filipinos first landed in Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587 to the present, no other month has held more significance for Filipinos in America than September 1965, when three major historic events occurred.
The most celebrated of them began in the early morning of September 8, 1965 when 1,500 Filipino farm workers in Delano, California arrived at work to cut the grapes off the vines as they had been doing since they first arrived in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. But after placing the grapes in boxes at the base of the trees, they walked off their jobs to picket the grape farms. It was the first day of the Delano Strike of 1965, perhaps the most significant labor action in American agricultural history.
The Delano Strike of 1965
It was the strike that led to the formation of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO; the strike that caused sweeping changes in U.S. farm labor laws; and the strike that led to the formation of the first national political organization of Filipinos in the U.S.
But it almost did not happen. Earlier in the week, about 150 Filipino farm workers crammed the Filipino Community Center in Delano to hear labor leader Larry Itliong describe how he and Pete Velasco had successfully organized 1,000 Filipino grape pickers in Coachella Valley, just south of Delano, to go on strike on May 3, 1965.
The strikers protested the disparity in wages between the $1.40 per hour paid to “braceros” (migrant workers brought from Mexico under a government program) and the $1.10 per hour paid to Filipino farm workers. Itliong narrated that soon after the strike began, the Coachella growers relented and agreed to pay the Filipino farm workers the same as they paid the Mexican braceros.
“We can get the same result here,” Itliong assured the Delano Filipinos. But many were unconvinced, fearing that they may offend the growers who provided them with free housing in labor camps during the grape season. When the vote came, only one hand was raised to support the call for a strike.
This meeting is recounted in the newly-released documentary “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers” by Marissa Aroy (DelanoManongs.com). An eyewitness relates how Itliong regretfully accepted the result of the vote but implored the workers to return in a few days to reconsider their vote.
A few nights later, on September 7, 1965, the workers returned to the community hall to hold another vote. Only this time, the vote was unanimous as they all enthusiastically voted to go on strike.
Itliong asked them all to spread the word and get all the workers to go to work at 4 a.m and then, when the whistles are blown, to stop work and set up picket lines outside the grape farms. The amazing fact that 1,500 Filipinos would act in such a unified and organized manner should lay to rest all the stereotypes of Filipinos as hopelessly afflicted with the crab mentality and incapable of uniting on any issue.
Larry Itliong had prepared for this historic moment since he first landed in California in 1929 from San Nicolas, Pangasinan, In 1956, he formed the Filipino Farm Labor Union and in 1958, he was the main organizer of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the AFL-CIO. Among the early members of AWOC were Carlos Bulosan and Philip Vera Cruz.
When the Delano Strike began, Itliong hoped that the Delano growers would accept the demands of the workers as the Coachella growers had done. But unfortunately, the Delano growers refused to negotiate and, instead, moved aggressively to recruit scab Mexican labor to replace the striking Filipino farm workers.
For the Delano strike to succeed, Itliong knew that he needed the support of the Mexican workers. “That’s when I went to see Cesar and asked him to help me,” Itliong told a reporter. “Cesar” was Cesar Chavez, the head of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), who was also based in Delano. He was the Larry Itliong of the Mexican farm workers.
When Itliong asked him to join the strike, Chavez said no, it was not yet the right time to go on strike. He asked Itliong to wait three more years and then his group would gladly join the Filipinos. Itliong replied that the Filipino farmworkers could not wait three years. They were already in their 60s. No, the time was now, he insisted. It was now or never.
Filipinos vs. Mexicans
Chavez and Itliong both knew that forging a united front between the Filipinos and the Mexicans would not be easy as the growers had historically used Filipinos to break Mexican-led strikes and Mexicans to break Filipino-led strikes. Divide and conquer had proven to be an effective growers’ strategy.
“For 80 years prior to 1965, every organizing attempt had been defeated, every strike had been crushed, the only law they knew was the law of the jungle and abuse and contempt and violence against farm workers was commonplace,” wrote Marc Grossman, a Sacramento political consultant.
After his meeting with Itliong, Chavez spoke to the Mexican farm workers at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano on September 16, 1965, which happened to be Mexican Independence Day. From the pulpit of the church, Chavez delivered an impassioned speech urging the Mexican workers to join their Filipino brothers in the field and to go on strike with them. When he called for a vote on whether to join the Filipino-led strike, the estimated 1,200 Mexican workers started to chant “Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!”
After combining their forces in the picket lines, Chavez and Itliong agreed to merge their organizations, AWOC and NFWA, to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), with Chavez as Executive Director and Itliong second in command. First Vice-President was Dolores Huerta, Second Vice-President was Philip Vera-Cruz, and Third Vice-President was Andy Imutan with Pete Velasco as Secretary-Treasurer of the union. Four of the top six leaders of UFWOC were Filipinos.
Despite this merger of forces, the growers were winning as they succeeded in getting scab labor to replace the striking workers. It was then that UFWOC launched a national boycott of all Delano-grown table grapes, forging alliances with students, churches, consumers and members of unions throughout the US. Chavez appointed Itliong as the UFW’s national boycott coordinator.
At its height, more than 14 million Americans joined the grape boycott and it eventually forced the Delano growers to sign historic contracts with the UFWOC in 1969, a first in American farm labor history.
What did the Delano Strike of 1965 achieve? According to writer Rick Tejada-Flores, “there was an end to the abusive system of labor contracting. Instead, jobs would be assigned by a hiring hall, with guaranteed seniority and hiring rights. The contracts protected workers from exposure to the dangerous pesticides that are widely used in agriculture. There was an immediate rise in wages, and fresh water and toilets provided in the fields. The contracts provided for a medical plan, and clinics were built in Delano, Salinas and Coachella.”
The UFW also set up the Pablo Agbayani Retirement Village in Delano for retired farm workers, many of the first residents were Filipinos who participated in the 1965 Delano Strike. The village was named after a Filipino farm worker who died of a stroke while picketing during the strike.
The Filipino food caravan of 1965
The 1965 Delano strike made the front pages of the national newspapers and was featured at the top of the TV network news. The media interviews of Larry Itliong countered the widespread public image of Filipinos as docile houseboys and obedient navy stewards. There was now a new positive image of an assertive Pinoy who was articulating the just demands of the Filipino workers
“I’m an SOB when it comes to fighting for the rights of Filipino farm workers,” Itliong said.
The Delano Strike was the talk of the town among Filipinos all over the U.S. but none more so than in San Francisco where Filipino community leaders, led by Alex Esclamado, publisher of the Philippine News, and Ariston Armada, president of the Iloilo Circle, mobilized the Bay Area Filipino community to gather canned goods to support their kababayans in the picket lines in Delano.
Emil Heredia of the Filipino Professionals group, Celestino Alfafara of the Caballeros de Dimasalang, Mike Magdaluyo of the Filipino Community of San Francisco and other community leaders asked the members of their organizations to collect canned goods among their friends, relatives and neighbors to help their manongs in the fields of Delano.
After two weeks of collecting canned goods, the San Francisco Filipinos drove in a convoy to Delano to the Filipino Community Center. It was billed as the Filipino Food Caravan of 1965, the forerunner of future Filipino community efforts to help other Filipinos in need whether victims of natural calamities in the Philippines or locally in labor strikes.
Los Angeles ProTem Judge John Armington, the son of Mariano Armington, recalled eating corned beef for several weeks at the Filipino Community Center and thinking that it was a native Philippine delicacy because San Francisco Pinoys had brought tons with them.
Filipino American Political Association
While the Bay Area Filipinos were in Delano, they joined the striking farm workers in the picket lines to express their solidarity. They also sat down together at the Filipino Community Center to form the Filipino American Political Association (FAPA), the first national political organization of Filipinos. Larry Itliong as unanimously elected the first national president of FAPA.
There had been national Filipino cultural, religious, military, masonic, professional community organizations in the past, but no national political organizations had been formed. This was a national organization that would develop and advance the Filipino political agenda of opposing discrimination and working for the election of Filipinos to elective office.
In just a few years, FAPA established 39 chapters throughout the US. Its members were elected to various elective positions in California including Leonard Velasco as mayor of Delano, Monty Manibog as mayor of Monterey Heights, and Glen Olea as Mayor of Seaside. Mark Pullido, the current Fil-Am mayor of Cerritos, California is spearheading a revival of FAPA in time to celebrate its golden anniversary next year.
The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), at its National Empowerment Conference held in San Diego on August 8-10, 2014, approved a resolution to celebrate the golden anniversary of the three September 1965 events – the Delano Strike, the Food Caravan and the founding of FAPA – in September of 2015. There will be commemorative events in Filipino communities throughout the US.
But Fred Cordova, a past president of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), believes he should be considered more than just a pioneer.
“I’d like to see his grave site included as a national shrine and the name Larry Itliong mentioned in the same breath as Cesar Chavez. His impact on the Filipino American experience is unsurpassed,” Cordova said.
(Rodel Rodis taught Philippine History and the History of Filipinos in America at San Francisco State University. He is the General Counsel of NaFFAA. Send comments to [email protected] or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 4127 or call 415.334.7800).
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