Meet the Filipino American Civil Rights Icon Who Was Forgotten By History

Larry Itliong

Larry Itliong dreamed of becoming a lawyer when he immigrated to the United States as a teen in 1929. However, the circumstances of being a Filipino American worker at the time would eventually lead him to a higher calling.

Itliong started young in leading the fight for migrants’ labor rights during a tumultuous period in America, according to the Smithsonian. While a growing number of people recognize him now as a key figure of the Asian American movement, many are still unfamiliar with his story.

 

He had a dream

Due to poverty and alleged racism, Itliong failed to get the education he needed to become an attorney. Along with other Filipino migrants, Itliong took jobs wherever he could find them: at Alaskan salmon canneries, Washington apple orchards and Californian grape vineyards.

Filipinos who remained single due to anti-miscegenation laws — which forbade interracial marriages — were able to move from season to season. This allowed Itliong and his compatriots to see their work in different settings and realized how organized labor could help them improve their working conditions. 

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After joining his first strike in Washington State alongside lettuce workers, Itliong organized and led the cannery workers in Alaska. An accident at a cannery caused him to lose three fingers, earning him the nickname “Seven Fingers.”

Itliong spent the next couple of decades fighting for better working conditions for farmworkers. He founded and led several unions, including the Filipino Farm Labor Union and the Filipino Voters League in Stockton. He was also involved in the 1948 asparagus strike, the first major agriculture strike after World War II.

He also led the AFL–CIO union Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which consisted of mostly migrant Filipinos. In May 1965, Itliong’s group asked for a 15 cents per hour raise in a strike against vineyard owners in the Coachella Valley. It was the group’s first success as growers ended up meeting the terms of the demand after a week.

Itliong then organized the Delano grape strike on Sept. 8, 1965, against table grape growers in Delano, Calif., who refused to honor the union’s demand for $1.40 an hour. Itliong and leaders Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco walked off of vineyards along with over 2,000 Filipino farmworkers. It was the first organized walkout of Filipino workers to fight against exploitation.

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According to National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) co-founder Gilbert Padilla, it was the first time labor icon Cesar Chavez learned about the Filipino American movement. Itliong urged Chavez to join them, and the NFWA members participated in their cause a week later.

Chavez’s NFWA merged with Itliong’s AWOC to form the historic United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1966.

In 1970, the growers signed a contract that made significant concessions to the farmworkers but disproportionately benefited the permanent residents — Mexican American laborers — over seasonal workers (Filipinos). Itliong resigned from the UFW in 1971.

The strike’s success led to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established collective bargaining power for farmworkers statewide.

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Itliong, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at 63 years old on Feb. 8, 1977, left behind a legacy that generations of Asian Americans can learn and take inspiration from.

Lost in history

The Delano Grape Strike, among other efforts, would make Chavez one of the most widely recognized civil rights icons in the U.S., with his story immortalized in music, film and other media. Itliong’s story and the contributions of many Filipino leaders were mostly relegated to footnotes in Chavez’s legacy.

Filipino American author Gayle Romasanta started writing a children’s book on Itliong with author and historian Dawn Mabalon in 2017 after failing to find one for her daughter.

“Specifically, I looked for a children’s book about Larry Itliong. There was nothing. I was shocked that no one had created a nonfiction Filipino American history book for children,” Romasanta told the Inquirer. “I was given a children’s book about Cesar Chavez to read, and I was surprised to find that there was no mention of anyone else starting the UFW but Cesar Chavez. I knew this wasn’t the whole truth, and I knew that children throughout the state were learning a partial truth about California farm labor history. I wanted to change that.”

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The Filipino American’s greatness would be generally forgotten if not for the recent efforts by Asian Americans to bring them to light. Historians, writers, artists, filmmakers and other creators have been highlighting the story of Itliong and the other Delano “Manongs” to keep their legacy alive.

California now celebrates Oct. 25 as Larry Itliong Day, which Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed last year, reported KGET.

Featured Image via Newsy (The Delano Manongs)

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