The Little-Known Farmworkers Who Sparked the Biggest Labor Movement in U.S. History
There would be no Cesar Chavez without the Filipino manongs of Delano, California, whose decision to strike set off the most significant labor movement the United States has ever seen.
On a dusty Thursday evening, a couple hundred yards across the railroad tracks from old town Delano, California, Roger Gadiano ambles out of his one-story house to conduct his usual tour.
The gray-haired Filipino man grew up in Delano and can tell you not only his own story but also the story of a small, seemingly prosaic agricultural town. He hops into his aging pickup and points out passing landmarks that any outsider might consider bleak and forgotten: a rundown grocery store, a vacant lot, the second story of an old motel.
Gadiano is one of the few Delano residents left who remember the town’s true history.To Gadiano, these places are anything but forgotten.
One of the stops on his tour is a graveyard, where he walks to a headstone in the middle of the grounds. This, he proudly declares, is where his old cigar buddy, Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong, is buried.
Gadiano notices dirt on Itliong’s stone. He returns to his truck for a towel and wipes away the mess. Once the headstone is legible again, he stands up and surveys his work. “There,” he grumbles. “Not that Larry really would’ve cared, but I care.”
Gadiano is one of the few Delano residents left who remembers the town’s true history: of hardship, resistance, and resilience in the face of less-than-promising odds. Some fifty years ago, the manongs, elderly Filipino immigrant laborers, abandoned their posts and walked off the grape fields in protest. Their action spearheaded a strike and subsequent boycott that lasted five years. The event would become known as the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.
The Filipinos’ decision to strike turned into a very public battle that appealed not only to other workers but to sympathetic middle-class consumers, as well. Their effort would ultimately have far-reaching implications for workers of color in rural America.
Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers of America are famous names, but history tends to overlook the role that the Filipino manongs played in it all. A successful strike required sacrifice by two groups, not just one. “There would be no Cesar Chavez without Larry Itliong,” Gadiano explains. “He was the guy doing the dirty work.”
An unsung hero, hard around the edges, Larry Itliong never bragged about his work and always put the cause above everything else, says San Francisco State University history professor Dawn Mabalon. Before he moved north to Delano, Itliong spent the spring of 1965 fighting alongside grape workers in the Coachella Valley to raise their hourly pay from a meager $1.10 to $1.40.
The Filipinos’ decision to strike marked a beginning to the most significant labor movement in U.S history.After a fight, and many incarcerated strikers, they secured the higher pay. The Delano manongs, meanwhile, expected their wages to improve given the Coachella victory but were dismayed to discover otherwise. At Filipino Community Hall on the evening of Sept. 7, 1965, the group decided to go on strike the following day.
The next morning, the workers picked ripe grapes until noon, when they left the fruit sitting underneath the vines. Then, 1,500 laborers walked off the fields, heading toward Filipino Community Hall.
But another group remained in the fields: The Chicanos continued to work, negating the impact of the Filipino strike by crossing the picket lines. Though these two groups were familiar with each other in town, it was a different story in the fields. The two crews were separated by ethnicity, interacting very little throughout the monotonous workday.
The growers capitalized on this. If one group struck, the growers would use the other group to break the strike.
Lorraine Agtang, who was in school in Delano during the strike, explains that pitting the two ethnic groups against each other was what kept the growers powerful. “When working, the grower would tell our crew how the Mexican crew had picked more grapes than we had,” she recalls. “I was a mestizo, half-Filipino and half-Mexican. I always felt torn between the two cultures.”
Itliong, along with other Filipino leaders like Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, and Andy Imutan, realized that if they were going to win the strike, they could not proceed alone. Together, with Itliong as regional director, these men led and organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). They reached out to Chavez and Huerta, who had formed the mostly-Chicano National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
Initially, Chavez felt unprepared to go on strike, but he, too, understood that overcoming the growers would require a multiethnic effort, explains Mabalon. Ten days after the manongs walked off the fields, the Mexicans voted to join their “brothers” on strike. For the first time, the two groups ate meals and organized workers together, united around a common goal. But the five years it took to reach a resolution weren’t easy for anybody.
“[Itliong] didn’t necessarily agree with everything that Cesar Chavez did, but he gritted his teeth for the sake of building a union. He made mistakes. Chavez made mistakes, too,” says Mabalon. Some Filipinos grew frustrated when the Filipino Community Hall was named the headquarters for the strike. When people of both ethnicities started using the space, many Filipinos felt it was being taken away from them.
Alex Edillor, a Filipino who also was in school in Delano during the strike, recalls the tension and segregation, even within the Filipino community. “Many families returned to work after several weeks, and the town became divided. Ours was one of those who quit the strike because my parents needed to pay rent and other bills and clothe and feed my sister and me,” he remembers. “I recall tensions about whom we sat with in church, whom we played with in school.”
Gadiano says Filipinos were called racist terms like “monkey” by the farmers, their children, and other white community members. “The strike turned everything upside down,” he says. “It was hard because the white kids just didn’t understand what we were doing.”
After several years of unsuccessful picketing, the movement called for a national boycott of table grapes. It was at this point that Delano attracted international attention, along with that of much of America’s sympathetic white middle class. The big businesses were finally taking a hit where it hurt: their wallets.
“Cesar became the face of the movement,” says Gadiano. “And then look at Larry. He had dark glasses, a Fu Manchu, and a cigar. He looked like a tough guy—and he was.” Itliong was relegated to a secondary role within the UFW, and Chavez emerged as the leader of the farm workers labor struggle.
It took years to resolve the strike. The first union contracts were signed on July 29, 1970. Chavez said 95 percent of the strikers had lost their homes, cars, and most of their possessions. But in losing those things, they also had found themselves. Despite all the disagreements, a powerful bond existed. “The cause is always above a single personality, that’s what Philip [Vera Cruz] used to say. It was beyond him, beyond me. It’s crazy to think about. I lived it,” says Gadiano.
Agtang agrees: “That grape strike and boycott would not have succeeded without genuine solidarity” between the two groups. “And that lesson is as important and meaningful today as it was five decades ago,” she explains. “Larry and Cesar insisted that the workers eat together and hold joint union meetings. They insisted grape strikers from both races share the same picket lines. As a result, people got to know one another and friendships grew.”
That high regard runs both ways.
One of Chavez’s grandsons, Andres, spends his time speaking and educating people about his grandfather’s work. He grew up in La Paz, a Central Valley community in Keene, California, which is also home to the National Chavez Center. He explains that his family has always spoken fondly of the Filipinos and that his father refers to them as his uncles. “My dad tells me about going to his uncles’ houses to eat Filipino fish head soup for dinner,” he says. “Apparently, it wasn’t bad!”
Mabalon believes there is a basic cultural and historical amnesia regarding Asian American contributions in the United States. Gadiano believes that the UFW and the Chicanos wanted to preserve their own history and didn’t do much to promote the Filipinos in the process. It’s hard enough for one group of color to have a moment in U.S history, he says, but two? Forget about it.
The big businesses were finally taking a hit where it hurt: their wallets.The younger Chavez understands that the Filipinos have, for the most part, been left out of the history books, but he believes that more collaboration between his grandfather’s foundation and the Filipinos will garner ammunition to continue the fight.
“The power and success of this movement stemmed from the fact that it was a multicultural movement, comprised of people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life,” he says. “Together they were powerful; together they made change.”
After contracts were signed, though, the newly formed bonds among union leaders didn’t last. Concerned about what they saw as top-down leadership, Itliong and other Filipinos started leaving the union in 1971.
As for the manongs who started it all, many were too old, at that point, to return to work. Community members, along with thousands of international volunteers, built the Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village in 1974 to provide a place for the original picketers—the manongs—“to live out their final years in dignity and security.” Agbayani, for whom the structure is named, died on the picket line of a heart attack.
Today, the site pays tribute to the manongs and the farm workers movement by displaying artifacts and pictures from the time period and preserving the site as it once was.
For Filipino Americans, the strike signified a paradigm shift in Delano. Edillor, who is now deeply involved with the Filipino American Historical Society, stresses the importance of passing this story on. “Delano is the waking up,” he says. “The strike symbolized that Filipinos have a hand in how we create our experience in the United States. It helped establish a Filipino-American identity.”
This past summer, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared Oct. 25 as Larry Itliong Day and required that public schools teach about Filipino involvement in the strike. In Union City, California, north of Delano, Alvarado Middle School was renamed Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School, the first time that a school in the United States has been named after Filipino Americans.
Though these small recognitions are significant, Itliong and the manongs are essential figures for young Asian Americans to know, particularly when they’re flipping through history books looking for Asian faces. The empowering history and the mistakes are important. The story of the brave manongs who fought and won should be taught along with accounts of injustices like Chinese exclusion and Japanese incarceration.
The vibrant Filipino community is what drew Gadiano’s father here in the first place. The Central Valley was where the work was, where housing was affordable, and where the lengthy stretch of dusty towns, north to south, became home to a thriving mix of international communities. There is nothing flashy in Delano. There is something much better.
Between several large agricultural warehouses, sits a small, unassuming white building with “FILIPINO COMMUNITY HALL” painted boldly across the front. Located in the older part of town, the center is still a gathering place for members of the Filipino community today.
On a Saturday, the building bustles with energy for a Filipino American Historical Society plaque dedication, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the strike. Elderly Filipinas gossip at a corner table, Edillor cracks jokes with community members, and “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine National Anthem, is sung with the same vigor as the rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” that follows.
Gadiano, who can point at any photograph along the walls at Filipino Community Hall and rattle off an anecdote, explains that Delano hasn’t changed much in character. Its businesses have signs outside that have clearly been hanging there for years, a little faded but still readable, and he’s lived next to the same family for as long as he can remember.
Why stay in Delano? Gadiano’s answer is simple: It’s home. “This is my place. Wherever I go, my heart goes back to Delano,” he explains. “A lot of people grow up and they forget their roots, but I’m still living in my roots. This is it.”
It is people like Gadiano, Agtang, and Edillor that keep the manongs’ legacy intact. Though 50 years have passed, the spirit of the strike exists everywhere – maybe just not overtly.
Stereotypes tell the story of the “quiet” or “successful” Asian, but Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Andy Imutan, Pete Velasco, and the rest of the manongs tell a different story.
And that is a story worth telling.
Alexa Strabuk wrote this article for YES! Magazine.