Manongs: Let’s remember them, the unsung Fil-Am farm labor heroes

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As I See It

BY ELPIDIO R ESTIOKO

October is Filipino-American History month and Manongs, in Filipino is used to address the elders with respect. The Delano Manongs weAre referred to as the FilAm farm workers in the history of farm labor movement in California who staged the famous Delano Grape Strike in 1965 and worked for fair farm labor practices.

This month of October, which was officially recognized by the California Department of Education since 2006 as the centennial celebration as Filipino migration to the United States, is a good reminder for us annually that the United States has been celebrating since 1998. This was established by the Filipino American National History Society especially in the states of California and Hawaii, where there are heavy concentration of Filipino Americans residing in the two states.

It is also the birth month of Filipino American labor leader/organizer Larry Dulay Itliong, a native of Pangasinan, Philippines, who contributed immensely, along with his fellow Delano Manongs, to California’s farm labor movement. His group were the first to stage a farm strike known as the Delano Gape Strike on September 8, 1965. Itliong was born on October 25, so his birthday was declared as Larry Itliong Day by California Governor Jerry Brown in honor of his contributions to the California labor movement.

California State Senator Leland Yee, in 2009, introduced a resolution that recognizes October as Filipino American History Month which was passed by the California State Assembly and was subsequently signed into law by Governor Brown.

In California, its history of farm labor movement recorded Filipinos’ major contributions with Larry Itliong as the most prominent leader.

Most history books, I found out however, mention Chavez and the UFW, but not Itliong or other Filipinos, who formed the bulk of the militant farm group that started fighting for their rights and fighting unfair labor practices starting in 1930s up to the 1970s. Chavez and his Mexican workers were known nationally while the Filipinos were never mentioned in the farm struggle. In addition, the Filipinos lost their farm jobs which jobs were all given to Mexicans, according to Larry’s son Johnny, and US FilAm historian Dr. Alex Fabros. Unfair, right? Itliong deserves equal recognition and place in the classrooms… as Chavez!

In May 1965, Itliong and the 1,500 strong FilAm farm labor workers thought of staging a strike to assert their civil rights considering that they were exploited for decades, received meager benefits, and received low salaries working in the fields for more than eight hours a day. So, Itliong and his group came out of their shells to stage a strike. On May 3, 1965, they went on strike against the Coachella Grape Valley grape growers. While the strikers weren’t able to negotiate a contract with the growers at that time, they succeeded in winning higher ages. This was confirmed by the son of Larry himself, Johnny Itliong and FilAm US historian Dr. Fabros, I met both of them years back during the screening of The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW, a video documentary about the contributions of FilAm farm workers in California’s farm labor movement. The documentary highlighted the role of Filipinos in the farm labor movement which was released in 2013, but it’s only now that people are being made aware of their contributions.

The video documentary was donated by US Congressman Ro Khanna to the Milpitas Public Library through LEAC with then chair Elpidio R. Estioko receiving the donation.

About six years ago, Melissa Nievera-Lozano came out with the Filipino Memorial Project (FMP) recognizing the efforts and contributions of FilAm farm workers in California’s labor movement led by Itliong. The FMP produced a 12’ x 4” community mural (consisting of three canvass panels) commemorating the history of Filipino farmworkers. It was designed by a collective of local artists and produced with the help of community members and youth across the Bay Area. It was installed at the Milpitas Public Library Children’s Corner on October 2013 with then Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves leading the ceremonial rights along with other officials, commissioners of the Library Education & Advisory Commission (LEAC), residents, and labor leaders.

On June 24, 1995, the first public art memorial honoring Filipino American farmworkers in the area was unveiled in LA’s Historic Filipino town with Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz as the most prominent historical figures. Itliong was posthumously honored in 2010 by inclusion in a mural at California State University, Dominguez Hills. In 2011, Los Angeles County recognized Itliong with Larry Itliong Day on October 25; this was followed by the City of Carson which became the first city in the United States to recognize Larry Itliong Day in the US in 2010. In mid-April 2013, the New Haven Unified School District renamed Alvarado Middle School Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School. This school is the first school in the US to be named for Filipino Americans. In 2014, an overpass over the Filipino American Highway was designated as the “Itliong-Vera Cruz Memorial Bridge”. Then we have the Larry Itliong Village in Los Angeles and the Larry Itliong Street in Alameda.

Five years ago, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 123 sponsored by FilAm Assembly member Rob Bonta incorporating the contributions of the Filipino-American farm labor movement in California in the curriculum of California public schools. Also, four years ago, Gov. Brown signed into law a bill proclaiming October 25 as Larry Itliong Day with the City of Milpitas also declaring the month of October as Larry Itliong Month. The City Council of Milpitas also named a park in his honor, the Larry Itliong Park.

While Chavez was honored because of his contributions to farm labor, Itliong also deserves a space in the classroom and in the history of California farm labor movement!

It is a must that we know our Filipino-American history… the right way!

(Elpidio R. Estioko was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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