Last of the 2-part series celebrating Filipino-American History Month
DELANO, California – It was the 1950s in Delano, Filipino migrant workers were seen as second class citizens and cheap labor.
Johnny Itliong remembers it well, as a 5-year old working alongside his father, labor leader Larry Itliong in the fields of a town many have forgotten since the historic grape strikes.
“I worked the cotton fields, picked cherries and oranges. It goes from one extreme to another. It gets very cold out here too and it’s a hard way of life,” recalled the younger Itliong.
As Filipinos continued working through the conditions for low pay, Larry Itliong and other labor leaders like Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco led Filipinos in the fight for better wages and benefits.
They planned their revolution within the walls of the Filipino Community Center.
“There was a lot of violence going on. But here at the Filipino Community Center, there was a lot of energy. Everybody got together talking about what needs to be done,” explained Johnny.
In September of 1965, at the Filipino Community Center, Filipinos authorized the Delano Grape Strikes with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
Mexican labor leader Cesar Chavez and Latino farmers joined the Pinoy-powered strike, eventually forming the United Farm Workers Union.
Despite Filipinos leading the strike and grape boycotts that paved the way for better working conditions and wages, many, including former staff of Chavez believe the history books unjustly omitted the names of the Filipinos.
“The ignorance is mostly to blame of the people who were in the leadership back then and Chavez himself for not explaining this to people,” explained Al Rojas who worked with Itliong and eventually worked as Chavez’ secretary.
A movement to correct this has been growing, the Delano manongs are immortalized in Filipino monuments throughout the country and few cities have issued resolutions to honor them.
Recently passed Assembly Bill 123, authored by Fil-Am state Assemblyman Rob Bonta would ensure that public schools in California will teach kids about the contributions of Filipino farmers.
“It gives our community visibility, but most of all, it gives us the importance that we deserve as the biggest API group in California,” said Jaki Joanino who organizes the Destination Delano ethnotour.
The Smithsonian Institute has also made efforts to include Filipino labor leaders as part of the traveling Carlos Bulosan-inspired “I Want the Wide American Earth” exhibit, efforts the Filipino community said can finally bring honor to a once forgotten era.