The Filipino term “manong” is loosely used to refer to an older man or kuya, especially among provincial folks. But in California, particularly in the Filipino community in Delano, the term is used in deference to a bunch of men who once made history in American soil.
The story of the Delano Manongs is told in an almost 30-minute documentary written, directed, and narrated by Marissa Aroy. It is an eye-opening, heartbreaking look at a point in our history unfamiliar to many of us.
There was a period in our history when Filipino men—about 100,000 of them—found their way to America lured by the prospects of a better life. This was in the 1920s and the 1930s. Most of them came from the remotest areas in the Philippines.
As migrant workers, they travelled across the West Coast to work in farms and vineyards. “Most of them can’t speak English, can’t read and write,” Andy Imutan, a Filipino-American Leader of the United Farm Workers (UFW), shares in the documentary. “So what they did was choose one of them who could talk to the growers in broken English to negotiate with them.”
The manongs were a strongly united lot, no doubt bound by their roots, their work and lifestyles. They lived together and worked together, migrating from one labor camp to the next.
Although hardworking and well-skilled in farm work, labor conditions in the farms were mostly unfavorable for the brown-skinned folk. The manongs experienced the height of discrimination in the 1930s when laws barred them from voting, owning properties, and starting their own businesses. The Anti-Miscegenation Law also banned them from contracting interracial marriages.
“That is why the Filipinos have a lost generation,” says Imutan. According to him, many of these manongs remained bachelors until they died.
Dance hall days
While life was hard in the farms, the manongs also knew how to have a good time. Alex Fabros, a Filipino-American labor historian, who was still a kid in those days, had lived with the manongs in a labor camp. “They like to dress up, they like to look good,” he recalls with fondness.
On Saturdays, they would go downtown to get a haircut and come back carrying the scent of fresh pomade. They would dress up in suits and tuxedoes for the dance parties and spend their hard-earned money on the dance hall girls, who would get paid 10 cents a dance.
“We became an entire generation that was forced by society to find love and companionship in dance halls,” the documentary quotes Filipino-American labor leader Philip Vera Cruz.
After the dancing and carousing, they were running back to the camp at 3 in the morning, thoroughly happy with their weekend rendezvous, ready to take on another challenging day in the field.
The leader of the pack
Popular among the manongs—and it seemed with the ladies, too—was the union leader Larry Itliong, also known as “Seven Fingers” (for he only had seven of them).
He sported a mustache and a crew cut. He must have charmed the ladies with his wit and sense of humor. “I got the ability to make you think I’m pretty. You girls might think I’m ugly, but you talk to me for a couple of hours, I’m pretty,” he says in a voice recording. Itliong was one of the few Filipinos to buck the system and got married not just once but four times in the US, the documentary reveals.
Itliong had a very strong presence, physicality, and according to his son Johnny, the man can “stand up to anybody, and stand up for anybody.”
“I’m not scared of nobody,” says the older Itliong. “And I’m a son of a b**** in terms of fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country.” He would later on emerge as the leader in the manongs’ fight for justice and equality.
To the picket lines
It was not an easy task for Itliong to rally his Filipino comrades. The manongs were a peaceful and respectful lot, who would rather keep silent than upset their employers. And so they spent the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s working the crop cycle and fighting for just a few cents extra every season. Despite the proddings of Itliong, they endured the unfair labor practice and did not protest the lack of wage increase.
This took a turn in 1965. The manongs—already in their twilight years by then and with everything to lose—unanimously decided they will stage a strike against the grape growers in Delano. On September 8 the same year, 1,500 Filipinos joined the pickets. The manongs in their advanced age chanting “Welga, welga” in a country not their own. They were met with intimidation, harassment, and violence.
The grape growers pitted the Filipinos and the Mexican workers against each other creating chaos. Realizing that they were on the losing end, Itliong appealed to Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez to stage a unified strike. On that same September, the two groups took a strike vote, and in the end, decided to fight for the same cause. It was the beginning of the longest strike in American labor history.
But with the Mexicans getting the national publicity through Chavez, the Filipinos were suddenly thrown out of the spotlight. In 1970—five years after the manongs took to the picket lines—the growers finally agreed to recognize the United Farmers Union and sign a union contract.
However, the new union rules favored the local farmers and not the migrant workers, so the manongs lost their jobs and also their homes. It was a sad conclusion to a long battle. “We started it, we lost in the end,” Alex Fabros laments.
The documentary is a powerful reminder that, more than half a century after the manongs marched to the picket lines in Delano, many Filipino migrant workers continue to suffer abuse and unfair labor practices on foreign soil. Some even meet their deaths before their battles get some attention. In “The Delano Manongs,” Itliong eventually resigns from the union, upset by the turn of events. But he continued working for the Filipino community and left a vision of a retirement home for the manongs. In 1974, three years before the labor leader’s death, UFW built the said home, and it was only then that the manongs, after decades of being a stranger in a strange land, finally had a place to call their own.
Screengrabs from The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement