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PORTSIDE  October 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE October 2012, Week 4

Subject:

Larry Itliong - Forgotten Filipino Labor Leader Initiated 60's Grape Strike

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Date:

Tue, 23 Oct 2012 22:21:43 -0400

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Larry Itliong - Forgotten Filipino Labor Leader Initiated 60's Grape Strike

Forgotten Hero of Labor Fight; His Son's Lonely Quest

By Patricia Leigh Brown

Published: October 18, 2012

New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/us/larry-itliong-forgotten-filipino-labor-leader.html

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.

[Slide Show -
History of Filipino Labor Leader Resides in Shadows
http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/10/18/us/20121018_FILIPINO.html ]

"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 SeƱora 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."

==========

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