Collectively, The Filipino American Press Club (est. 1978), Inc. SIPA, Weekend Balita/USAP, Philippine News and the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association presented a significant forum on December 13th on Larry Itliong, the forgotten hero of the US Labor Movement. Below is a recap authored by media colleague/journalist Dante Ochoa.
Labor Leader son bats to re-tell UFW history
By Dante D. Ochoa
Jhonny Itliong, son of Larry Itliong, the beloved Filipino farm labor leader, who together with Cesar Chavez led the historic Delano Grape Strike during the mid-sixties, brought back his father’s memory and his achievements but bewailed the present lack of recognition in the United Farm Workers (UFW) narrative on the California farm labor movement. He spoke during a forum sponsored by the Filipino American Press Club (FAPCLA Est. 1978), Inc. and SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans), Thursday night, December 13. Other co-sponsors include Weekend Balita, Philippine News and the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA).
Addressing the forum panel and a Filipino American audience which included Consul-General Hellen Barber-de la Vega, Itliong recalled his father’s hard work for better working and living conditions for the toilers in the fields of central California that provided most of the agricultural produce to the dinner tables across America.
Itliong presented a trailer of the film documentary “Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of UFW” made by award-winning Filipino American documentarist, Melissa Aroy scheduled to be released by the end of this year, according to Itliong.
The film clip covered the origins of the Filipino agricultural workers association and how this group of Filipino farm workers led by Larry Itliong provided the historic spark for the unleashing of the power of farm labor movement in California that up to that time had been at the complete mercy of farm owner-growers.
“The California growers had played the agricultural workers against each other (principally Filipinos and Mexican workers). When there is a dispute on pay and working conditions, growers customarily threaten the complaining workers with other readily available work crews and that’s how farm disputes were then put under control,” Itliong said.
“It was my father who in 1965, during the Filipino strike against growers, crossed the racial divide and approached Cesar Chavez to join the Filipinos farm workers. At first Chavez, hesitated telling Larry Itliong that their group needed two more years to be ready for a strike but the majority of Chavez’ 3500 member workers voted in favor of immediately joining their “Filipino brothers in their struggle”, said Itliong’s son, recalling his father’s accounts of the start of the great strike.
The move by Larry to talk to Chavez galvanized the farm workers in central California and unified the Filipino Agricultural Workers Association led by Itliong and the National Farm Workers Association led by Chavez. The Filipino and Mexican workers eventually merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW) union that drew widening national support from all sectors of the American nation, most notably by the late senator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. with Chavez as director and Itliong as Assistant Director.
The younger Itliong lamented the fact that his father and other Filipino farm labor leaders’ participation during the critical beginnings of the UFW were absent from present accounts and history books about the California farm labor movement.
FAPCLA est. 1978, Inc. president Dr. Ludy Ongkeko thanked everyone for coming to the forum impressed with the attendance of highly motivated Filipino Americans and promised that the FAPCLA will be sponsoring more activities that seeks to make Filipino Americans more aware of the community’s contribution to the America society. Joel Jacinto, president of SIPA assured the Filipino American audience that the SIPA hall as always will be available venue in future community activities of FAPCLA and others. Board member Cecile Ochoa moderated the information-packed forum.
Jhonny said the marginalization of Filipino workers from the labor movement started when the various interest groups began to crowd around Chavez and overwhelmed the Filipinos out of Chavez’ circle of advisers. Eventually, Itliong, resigned after serving as assistant director, citing differences on governance issues and with UFW’s emerging strategy and tactics presumably stemming from the fact that the UFW had become more Mexican in rank and file and leadership.
“Up to the present, there is no mention by the UFW, of the names Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco or Andy Imutan, all who provided leadership at the critical beginnings of the farm labor movement, ” the son said.
The forum panelists included Dr. Paula Bagasao, a well-known Filipino American Democrat and Clinton administration appointee, Florante Ibanez, former president of Asian Pacific Association of Librarians and professor of Philippine American history at Loyola Marymount University and media representatives Lydia Solis of Philippine News, Louinn Lota and Dante Ochoa of the FAPCLA est. 1978, Inc.
Panelist Bagasao offered an insight on the unfair omission of Itliong and the Filipino contributions: “It’s just that there is no room for any one else in the UFW narrative. Chavez is the hero and nobody else, that’s the story. That’s the reality of labor union politics and everybody, the rank and file, the leadership has to toe that one line.”
“But us Filipino Americans can tell the complete true story and we don’t have to ask permission from the UFW, from the Hispanics. We don’t need to have permission from anyone to tell our own story on Filipino contributions to the farm labor movement,” Bagasao added.
Ibanez, a panelist and one of the very early advocates for Filipino Americans from his early years at the UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino, a student and youth organization, expressed frustration with the continuing miswriting of an important part of American and California history at the expense of Filipino Americans.
“We have to have history rewritten to include Filipino American contributions to the American society including the books being studied in the school system through K-12 to bring due recognitions to the Manongs,” said Ibanez.
“It’s a shame that such an effective leader who led farm workers to where they were not before the strike will be unjustly omitted from labor union history,” said Philippine News and forum panelist Lydia Solis, adding, “We should support the Itliong Foundation in its work to give credit to Larry Itliong and others who sacrificed for the workers’ cause.”
Panelist Louinn Lota, former Associated Press reporter expressed disbelief that the highly- educated and talented leader as Larry who was instrumental in organizing effectively the agricultural workers will be passed over as the head of the farm workers.
Itliong’s account of the historical omissions drew support from the sympathetic audience that have attracted attendees from as far as Oxnard, California including an 83 year old former professor of anthropology at Manila, Philippines’ University of the East and Philippine documentarist and filmmaker Joey Gonzalez.
Consul-General Barber-de la Vega was highly impressed by the determination of the son of Larry Itliong in his effort to correct historical omissions and unfairness and assured that the Philippine Consulate will be ready to participate in all future efforts for Itliong, to assure a wider participation among the Los Angeles community. “It is part of the Consulate’s mission to contribute to the advancement of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in its journey in American society,” said the consul general.
San Fernando Valley resident Vergel Ochoa suggested that the issue need not be Itliong as opposed to Chavez citing that Itliong has his critical contributions at the beginning and Chavez thereafter, alluding to historical continuities in Philippine history, i.e., Andres Bonifacio to General Emilio Aguinaldo of the Philippine revolution. This view apparently would be amenable to the UFW history writers.