Scent of Grapes: Pilgrimage notes on the 45th anniversary of the ’65 Delano Grape Strike

The Los Angeles City Council last week adopted a Resolution acknowledging the 45th anniversary of the historic Delano Grape Strike started on September 8, 1965..

That strike was led by Larry Itliong, Pete Velasco, Philip Veracruz and other Filipino labor leaders who organized themselves into the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) AFL-CIO.

This past Saturday, September 18, 2010, the Agbayani Pilgrimage Organizing Committee (Mark Pulido and Marissa Pulido Rebaya, co-coordinators) organized a series of events in Delano to commemorate this historic event, raise community consciousness and pay tribute to the Delano Manongs.

Mark Pulido gave some history on the importance of the commemoration:

“The Delano Grape Strike, which was started on September 8, 1965 at the Filipino American Community Hall in Delano, California, by the mostly Filipino American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee led by labor leaders Manong Larry Itliong, Manong Philip Vera Cruz and Manong Pete Velasco. Over 1,500 Filipino American farm workers made history that day.”

“Eight days later, on Sept. 16, 1965, the mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association, led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, voted to join the strike at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Delano, California. In unifying, these two groups built a powerful movement for change. This strike led to the two groups merging in 1966 to establish the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, which eventually became the United Farm Workers of America.”

The community that gathered in Delano this weekend was familiar: From across California–from San Francisco/San Jose, to Delano/Stockton, to Los Angeles/Orange County–a multi-generational and multi-racial group of students, community workers, professionals, scholars, community leaders and students of the late John Delloro thirsty for history went with video cameras, smart phones and audio recorders in tow.

All met at the Agbayani Village, a retirement home built by union workers and student activists over a generation ago just for the aging Manongs.

Picture of Agbayani Village in Delano, California by Jonny Itliong.

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“Compared to the labor camps,” recalls Roger Gadiano, “Agbayani village was a 5-star hotel. It had spacious rooms with a TV, long-playing records and a record player, clean bathroom, and the camaraderie among brothers.”

Built on 40-acres, Agbayani Village was named after Paulo Agbayani, a Filipino farm worker who died over the course of the Grape Strike; knowing that the UFW was in search for land to house the Manongs, Kern County officials recommended the lot. It was part of a county dumpsite. Then isolated and desolate, labor and activists erected Agbayani Village upon it from scratch over the course of 3 years.

Since the early 1990s, when UCLA students organized by Mark Pulido started trekking there, it has been and continues to be a key pilgrimage site for those wanting a tangible link to a pioneering past.

Unlike previous pilgrimages, those who went this weekend were treated to many captivating speakers.

Casimiro and Jennifer Tolentino told us about their experience building Agbayani Village.

Dolores Velasco, wife of the late Manong Pete Velasco (UFW, Secretary-Treasurer, 1971-1995) read a stirring speech of her late husband and a poem she wrote years ago.

Itliong’s son and daughter, Johnny Itliong and Sandra Itliong Sanchez, shared an emotional Q&A about their late father.

Sandra Itliong Sanchez  spoke of her personal journey to Delano from Virginia, a story in itself. In a nutshell Steve Arevalo, Facebook, and the generosity of Eliseo Medina, an officer of national SEIU, were involved.

“I am really excited that we are having this event and that we were invited,” she said. “Thank you for putting this together. My family has never done anything like this; we never celebrated this.”

“Now all the stories I tell my kids, they now know and see that we played a big part in making American and California farm labor history. It is a sad and happy time; sad that it took so long, happy that you are all here.”

Picture: Jonny Itliong, far right, Keano Sanchez, Anthony Sanchez, Zorian Sanchez (toddler), Michael Sanchez Jr., Larry Itliong III, Sandra Itliong Sanchez, Cerise Sanchez, & Paige Ashcraft (little girl). Picture by Jonny Itliong.
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Jonny Itliong’s impromptu remarks quieted the room. A man with an imposing 6′ frame, he stood, voice trembling, to address new friends:

“I am the son of Larry Itliong,” he began, his voice cracking under the pressure of both words and circumstance. “Thank you so much for being here. It’s been many years of wondering when this would happen; I’ve spent many years asking when people would recognize what the manongs have done.”

“How to put in words the strong emotions I have…I just recently stood before the LA City Council and talked about the Delano Manongs to get a resolution commemorating their work.”

“I am doing this for my father, my kids and my family; not doing this for my self. I want them so badly to know what a great grandfather they had. He passed when I was 11. I thank God that he was my father; he inspired me to do what I do best (I’m a chef); the family history he’s given us, I’m so proud of it and to share it with you.”

“Uncle Pete and Dolores were my family. I miss the camaraderie that the manongs had each time they came together. The pigs, the chickens, the goats…every get together was an occasion to feast. I think this is what inspired me to become a chef: the scent of vinegar, garlic, tomatoes, grapes…Thank you all for caring, for being here, for building this place.”

“This is my son, Larry Itliong III; he is now starting to understand who his grandfather was. I asked him what he thought of the documentary about my father recently shown us, and if he should be proud of his grandfather and he said ‘Yes. I am proud.’”

The road to the Filipino Community Hall

After the stop at Agbayani Village, everyone gathered at the Kern County Memorial Cemetery, where Manong Larry Itliong was buried. Among the rows of tombstones laid flat on the ground, Manong Larry’s stood out because of the legacy he built while alive.

The bare strip of lawn above his tombstone became a stage upon which Jonny and Sandra shared their memories of Manong Larry as a father, as a man. He was a Jack-of-all-trades, serving as a counselor, confidant, tax and document preparer, community organizer.

After everything that could be said was said, the caravan left for the Filipino Community Hall in Downtown Delano, the place where AWOC voted to strike.

Picture: Inside the Filipino Community Hall of Delano before the screening of “The Delano Manongs”; picture shows Max Bacerra, longtime Delano resident & community leader, speaking to the group. Picture by Jonny Itliong.

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The hall, an average box of a building, is special for its place in history, not to mention the statue of a carabao caged-in in the back; as the beast of burden in the Philippines, the carabao is a sign of industry, of strength, and even of power–sufficient enough reasons for farmworkers to erect a statue.

Folks gathered to watch “The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW,” a documentary focused on the life and role of Manong Larry Itliong in organizing farm workers, the AWOC, and the UFW.

Marissa Aroy, the film’s director was present to answer questions; her thoughtful and overdue film served to highlight the work ahead to win sufficient recognition of the Manongs’ legacy in the farmworker movement.

Homeward bound from Delano

The road to Delano was the expected: dry heat, long dusty drive. Along the stretch of the 5FWY and the 99FWY, the transition from urban to rural and agricultural was striking: I saw a semi towing a semi, Chevy and Ford trucks kicking up dust as they raced to drop off their load, ordinary folks walking the road, hitch-hiking to the next town over the rolling hills. Zero highrises.

Reaching the day’s end and preparing with the others to drive back home reminded me of how easy it is for all of us to forget and leave behind the work of the Manongs. Forgetting and remembering are, in deed, choices we make.

As I drove home, and began debriefing my experience, I could not help but smell the scent of grapes ripening on the vines. Earthy was the defining character of the smell, and it made me ask why the Manongs didn’t just simply abandon the fields if their lives were so hard. Obviously, the answers are varied and rooted in that period in history; but I think another reason is the familiar connection to the earth that farm labor represented then, and continues to represent now.

Marginalized in a foreign shore and away from the reassuring warmth of family, working on Delano’s farms bridged their isolation and transported the Manongs to the farms they once knew growing up. They must have felt great joy and a solid sense of achievement making land productive, raising grapes.

In a country that considered them with little value, feeding the city folk across California with the grapes they grew must have been sweet revenge, and a measure of self-soothing, self-advocacy. The political project in farmworker organizing they later cultivated was a logical extension of this self-advocacy, of this need to be considered as equal and noteworthy.

Delano, this isolated place, not only feeds the population with its crops and the soul with its rural charm, it also feeds our collective identity as Filipino Americans by linking us to a vital period in our settlement history.

And so, in the same way that the long stretch of power lines along its access roads tethers Delano to the broader civilized world beyond, so, too, does the history of the Manongs tether us to a powerful moment in American history, and the successive episodes of community solidarity the Grape Strike inspired.

The collective work we each do to improve the quality of life in our community–whether thru politics, academia, business, healthcare, nonprofit work–is intertwined with the boldness of the Manongs way back then when they stood up to say, “We exist, and we are here to stay!”

They stood up for themselves, and, in many ways, also for us; and for this macro-level and long-haul aspect of their work, their strike, their advocacy, will always be current.

Our role in building the state, in blazing the trail for the farmworker movement, these find their origin in Delano, and they are as solid as the earth that the Manongs tilled. May the ongoing writing of their history–and rewriting of UFW history–continue to inform the world of what the Manongs did, and inspire us to contribute even more fully to the ongoing work of building a thriving Filipino American community.

Indeed, the work to doing both well knows no end; in the words of Jonny Itliong, “the grape strike never ended; it goes on.”

Resources: http://dbacon.igc.org/FarmWork/EvWrk15.htm, http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/03.htmlhttp://web.me.com/joelarkin/RaceDemographicsandMonterey/Fil_Delano_Strike.html,http://media.gfem.org/node/94,http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/collection/object_382.htmlhttp://www.csupomona.edu/~library/specialcollections/ufw/index.html,http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfi

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