A leader of farm workers, and Filipinos’ place in US history

Jill Cowan, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 22 2019 01:06 PM

United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, left, who led the fight as head of the AFL-CIO union local, talks with his assistant Larry Itliong, in front of union headquarters at Delano, Calif., July 28, 1967. Harold Filan, AP

If you live in California, you’ve almost certainly seen Cesar Chavez’s name on street signs, libraries, public parks and schools.

The famed Chicano labor leader helped start one of the first farmworker unions in the country and spent his life fighting to improve conditions for those toiling in the nation’s fields.

But he didn’t start that union, the United Farm Workers, alone.

In 1965, a labor organizer named Larry Itliong had just helped 2,000 Filipino grape workers in the Central Valley town of Delano organize a strike. And it wasn’t until after Itliong asked Chavez and Dolores Huerta to persuade Mexican workers to join forces with them that the UFW was born.

Over the years, there have been efforts to better mark Itliong’s contributions, but his name still isn’t widely known or taught.

Recently, I talked with author Gayle Romasanta, who wrote a children’s book with Filipino-American historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon tracing Itliong’s life, about her efforts to change that — efforts that have taken on extra urgency as the state’s educators grapple with lingering questions about whose stories would be told in an ethnic studies curriculum.

Mabalon died in August 2018, shortly before the book was published.

Here’s my conversation with Romasanta, condensed and edited for space:


First, tell me a little about yourself and how you came to this story.

I’ve been a longtime artist and writer, and I grew up in and currently live in Stockton.

Dawn Mabalon was from Stockton and she was one of my good friends, and really our leading Filipino-American historian on Filipino-American history.

So in about 2016, she was writing the adult book about Larry Itliong for her college students.

And I approached her and I said, well, I think we need to turn this into a children’s book.

Tell me about Larry Itliong and how he got to be so instrumental in this work.

In 1929, when he was 15, he decided that he wanted to go to the United States. He had an argument with his father. But he tells his father, “I’m leaving.”

He already has an idea of the United States as the most modern and most wonderful country in the world. He’s getting letters from neighbors in the U.S. telling him, “Come here to school.” So he lands in Seattle, and the first thing that his uncle says when he sees him is, “Can I borrow five dollars? I can’t make rent.”

He takes him down King Street in Seattle, and he sees all of these out-of-work Filipinos who are waiting for the season to start. This is Larry’s introduction into the United States, and he’s absolutely shocked and punched in the gut.

So he begins organizing, up and down the West Coast, in Alaska. By the time we see him in the Delano grape strikes, he has 30 years of working, organizing and being part of the union and starting unions, and organizing Filipinos and getting them to join the union. In fact, he’s done so well and he signed up a thousand workers. Which is why they sent him to Delano.

I don’t want to pit Larry Itliong’s legacy against Cesar Chavez’s, of course. But at the same time, there’s a real gap in recognition and I’m wondering why that is.

I mean, we’re talking Filipinos in their 60s or 70s already. You see the pictures, they were older men. Now, when you compare that image to very young Mexican workers, that’s what the media chose to depict of who was in this fight.

There was also some tension there because a lot of the meetings were conducted in Spanish only. And a lot of Filipinos lost their seniority when they became part of the union. They’ve been there since the 1920s and 1930s, and when the UFW came together, everyone was leveled.

Then there’s colonialism. So whereas we have the fighters of that generation, who are older, a new wave of Filipino-Americans are here as nurses and doctors.

They want to forget very quickly that they came from farmworkers. We still have that in the Filipino community, now, where they’re not acknowledging our vibrant, rich history in the United States.

The Mexican-American community was strong enough to keep communicating and to understand what Cesar Chavez meant for their community. What is their standard for social justice? What is their standard for their treatment as immigrants?

But we didn’t necessarily have that. We have not passed that on. And this is an opportunity for our own community to do that and to be able to talk about our leaders like Larry Itliong.