“Forgotten Hero of Labor Fight; His Son’s Lonely Quest”
“DELANO, Calif. — It is the obscurity of his father’s grave, not far from the once-tumultuous grape fields where farmworker history was made, that most troubles Johnny Itliong, a chef from Los Angeles.
“Larry deserves better,” Mr. Itliong said of his father, Larry Itliong, the fiercely determined, polyglot Filipino labor leader whose pivotal role in the farm labor movement continues to reside in history’s shadows.
Mr. Itliong, 47, looks much like his father did, though taller and ponytailed. Losing his father when he was 11, he grew up with a persistent longing, which has led him on a journey to bring his father’s accomplishments to light.
Mr. Itliong was a baby in 1965, the year his father and 1,000 field laborers — the first wave of Filipinos to the United States, known as manongs — began the grape strike that set the stage for the boycott that would lead Cesar Chavez and thousands of farmworker families to create the nation’s pioneering agricultural labor union, the United Farm Workers.
Last week, in what was widely seen as a nod to Latino voters, President Obama traveled to Nuestra Señora de La Paz in Keene, the United Farmworkers headquarters and redoubt established by Chavez in 1971. There he designated the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the country’s first monument honoring a modern-day Latino. Chavez is buried at La Paz, surrounded by a memorial rose garden; the site, donated by the Cesar Chavez Foundation and operated by the Park Service, includes a visitors center and the home where Mr. Chavez’s widow, Helen, still lives.
But to a new generation of Filipino scholars and other historians, there is a missing element from the predominantly Latino narrative. “In popular culture, it’s seen as a Chicano movement, not as the multiethnic alliance that it actually was,” said Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University.
On Sept. 8, 1965, Filipino farm workers organized by Mr. Itliong crowded into the Filipino Community Hall, where Filipino elders still gather. They voted to go on strike against the Delano table-grape growers — a bold, risky move that had been preceded by a successful summertime walkout of hundreds of Filipino and Mexican grape pickers in the Coachella Valley to the south. Fearful of losing their season harvest, the growers capitulated and agreed to a raise.
Mr. Itliong, known as “Seven Fingers” — the tales vary about how he lost the missing three — came to the United States in 1929 when he was 15, having never slept in a bed or lived in a home with electricity. Soon he joined striking lettuce workers in Washington State; later he would can fish in Alaska and help organize a cannery and agricultural workers’ union, leading his manong “brothers” as they followed the grapes, raisins, brussels sprouts and other crops up and down the spine of California. An excellent card player and avid cigar smoker, he spoke numerous Filipino dialects as well as Spanish, Cantonese and Japanese, according to his son, and taught himself about law by attending trials.
Filipino activism had deep roots: harsh treatment in the Hawaiian cane fields, including whippings, led to a history of sometimes violent strikes. West Coast farmers started turning to Filipinos — mostly single men — for cheap labor after the Immigration Act of 1924 excluded Asians from entering the United States. Filipinos were an exception because the United States had annexed their country.
For the manongs, it was a largely segregated existence, confined to dilapidated labor camps or squalid rentals in various “Little Manilas.” Anti-miscegenation laws in California and some other states prohibited Filipinos and whites from marrying, and most spent decades deprived of a normal social and family life. “We became an entire generation that was forced by society to find love and companionship in dance halls,” wrote Philip Vera Cruz, a Filipino labor leader.
On that notable September in 1965, hundreds of Filipino workers poured into the Community Hall — usually used for card games and pig roasts — and voted to strike. They were promptly evicted from their bunkhouses. Almost overnight, the hall became “a bivouac in a labor war,” wrote Frank Bardacke in “Trampling Out The Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers” (Verso, 2011).
There had been no love lost between Mexicans and Filipinos, historically pitted against one another to suppress wages or break strikes. Yet Mr. Itliong’s workers could not go it alone. He approached Mr. Chavez, then busy organizing the National Farm Workers Association.
Mr. Chavez made a momentous decision. “Cesar said, ‘We can’t scab the strike, we can’t cross it even though it might lose,’ ” Mr. Bardacke said in an interview. For the first time, Filipino and Mexican workers became “brothers,” eventually forming one organization — the United Farm Workers — with Mr. Itliong as a vice president, one of several Filipino leaders on the executive board. Mr. Chavez saw an opportunity to use nonviolent tactics to take the struggle beyond the Central Valley.
When Johnny Itliong thinks about his father, his favorite phrase, “By golly!” leaps to mind. Filipino Community Hall looms large, too: one of his earliest memories is of Joan Baez singing at a farm workers rally at the hall.
Going to school as a boy with grape growers’ children, he wore torn hand-me-downs — a constant reminder “that there was always a separation between white and brown,” he said.
Larry Itliong married six times in all; his son was 2 years old when his parents divorced. He resigned from the U.F.W. in 1971, unhappy with the direction the union was taking. In Delano, there is no Larry Itliong School, no Itliong Park or Drive. The only official recognition is Larry Itliong Day in Los Angeles County — Oct. 25 — a small victory on a son’s lonely quest to have his father’s contributions recognized.
At Filipino festivals and events, Mr. Itliong erects homemade displays about his father, motivated by his son Aleks, 4, and daughter Angela, 2. He is trying to raise money to place a simple bench beside his father’s grave.
In Delano, where nearly one-third of the 50,000 residents are of Filipino descent, the community hall remains a spiritual hub, a place where pork adobo is served along with the turkey at Thanksgiving.
The building is considered one of the six most historically significant sites of the farmworker movement, said Martha Crusius, a planning chief for the National Park Service, which hopes to include some sites in Delano if Congress approves a proposed expansion of the Chavez national monument. Another farmworker landmark is the 40 Acres, the original U.F.W. headquarters with a health clinic and other services, where Mr. Chavez held his first hunger strike.
The site includes Paolo Agbayani Village, a retirement home built by volunteers for aging Filipino manong, who had no families and nowhere to go. They channeled their yearning for home into a garden, putting up a fence of dried-palm fronds and planting beans and bitter melon.
The last Filipino occupant died several years ago, but there are plans by the Cesar Chavez Foundation to re-create the garden to honor Filipino farm workers.
Jay Tamsi, president of the Filipino Community of Delano, said the group would like to open Filipino Hall to visitors, with Park Service help. “The people are proud,” Mr. Tamsi said. “It’s a monument within their hearts.”