As an American Filipino, I look at Larry Itliong and see my father, a fellow immigrant who came to America in the 20s.
Coincidentally, Itliong died on my father’s birthday in 1977.
But his birthday is this week, October 25.
Itliong would have been 100 years old.
Now it seems, more and more people are finally giving Itliong a little love and recognition.
It was always there at the grassroots, to some degree.There was always some appreciation among Filipino laborers in California. But for some reason, Itliong was always cut out of the limelight by fellow farmworker leader Cesar Chavez.
As an experienced union hand, Itliong organized fellow Filipino workers in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.He became the leader of the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Committee, and was no stranger to strikes. It’s the reason Chavez needed Itliong the most.
As veteran California labor writer Dick Meister wrote:
Chavez felt that his group, then called the National Farm Workers Association, wasn’t ready to strike itself, but would honor the picket lines of the striking Filipinos. Yet if they were to honor the picket lines of Itliong’s group, Chavez’ members asked, Why not strike themselves? Why not? And so they did. That became the grape strike of 1965 that drew worldwide attention and support and ultimately led to the unionization, at long last, of California’s farm workers. It was Larry Itliong and his Filipino members who started it all, and who played an indispensable role throughout the struggle.
Without them there could not have been a strike. Without them, there could not have been the victory of unionization, without them no right for the incredibly oppressed farm workers to bargain with their employers.
That’s what Filipinos did in America. But Chavez almost always gets 100 percent of the credit.
Maybe it’s because Chavez, with his beliefs in non-violence was seen as a Gandhi-like charismatic presence . He inspired a movement that attracted labor and progressives. By way of ethnicity, Chavez had already solidified Mexican migrant laborers and their trust.
Itliong? With him, you were likely inspired to light up a cigar, pull up a chair and play a few games of chance. Itliong was feisty, an honest man who was tough guy blunt with seven-fingers to prove it. (He lost them in a cannery accident). Because he lived the life of the workers he had their trust. But he may have been a bit of a wild man, suitable for the rank-and-file, but a little too in-your-face for the urban bleeding hearts who knew nothing of the reality of the fields beyond wage wars.
I could sense his personality vividly after hearing Itiong’s voice on a tape of a lecture made in a Filipino American history class at UC Santa Cruz. It may have been just the thing to draw people to Chavez and push Itliong aside.
The tape, made in 1976, a year before he died at age 63, one can hear Itliong talk about why he came to America as a young man at 16, in the 1920s.
“You go to the United States where they pick money on trees,” he said of the dream Filipinos had of America. “Did that happen? Hell,no.”
Itliong said he found Filipinos working the fields for less than a dime an hour. That was the inequity that informed his life. It helped him develop his true gift, that of being an indomitable fighter of the rights of Filipinos.
“I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world,” he says on that tape. “I could make him think, and I could make them recognize that I’m a mean son of a bitch in terms of my direction fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country. Because I feel we are just as good as any of them. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You’ve got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you.”
Indeed, there was a lot to fight for Itliong says Filipinos in the fields would too often find themselves netting less than 75 cents for an 8-hour day. And because of their status, they were barred from owning property, marrying, or starting families.
“Prior to 1936, we were nobody,” Itliong says on the taped lecture. “We’re not considered nationals, aliens, not considered citizens, we’re nothing. We are nothing in this country. It means you don’t have any kind of recognition.”
As we approach his 100th birthday, Itliong will get a little more recognition from a global community which has not forgotten the fight he waged for Filipinos in the fields.
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