Remembering Larry Itliong: The FilAm labor leader/organizer

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As I See It
By ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO

Have you ever heard of Larry Itliong? You may have heard of Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta but not Larry Itliong, right? That’s what we want you to know because if not for Larry Itliong and his 1,500 farm worker-members which paved the way towards the birth of the United Farm Workers, Chavez perhaps should not have been known the way he is known today.

Most history books mention Chavez and the United Farm Workers, but do not include a mention of Itliong or other Filipinos, who form the bulk of the militant farm group that started fighting for their rights and fighting unfair farm labor practices starting in the 1930s up to the 1970s.

In the classroom, teachers teach students the exploits and pioneering activities of Cesar Chavez in his efforts and leadership as a union organizer, civil rights advocate, and as a trailblazer in California’s farm labor movement. In fact, lawmakers and local executives even came out with a Cesar Chavez Day on May 31, and on that day, Californians celebrate Cesar Chavez Day in recognition of his crusading efforts in the labor movement.

Only a few know however that there is another labor leader who likewise pioneered and co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) alongside with Chavez: FilAm Larry Itliong. He likewise deserves recognition and a place in the classrooms for Californians to know.

Itliong and his co-farm workers staged the first farm labor strike in Delano before Cesar Chavez did and later worked side by side with Chavez to advance the cause of farm laborers and alleviate the plight of the farmers.

About three years ago, Melissa Nievera-Lozano broached the idea of a Filipino Memorial Project to recognize the efforts and contributions of FilAm farm workers in California’s labor movement led by Larry Itliong. The Filipino Memorial Project (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 Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves leading the ceremonial rights along with other officials and labor leaders.

It was in the month of May, 1965 that the 1,500 strong FilAm farm labor workers, led by Itliong, broached the idea of staging a strike to assert their civil rights. For decades, the farm workers were exploited, received meager benefits, and received low wages working in the fields for more than eight hours a day. On May 3, 1965, they staged a 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 wages. This was confirmed by the son of Larry himself, Johnny Itliong and FilAm US historian Dr. Alex Fabros. I met both of them lately during the screening of The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFWs, a video about the contributions of FilAm farm workers in California’s farm labor movement. The screening was held lately at the Milpitas High School Auditorium. The documentary was made to highlight 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 in the farm labor movement in California.

Larry Dulay Itliong was born on October 25, 1913 and died on February 8, 1977. He was also known as “Seven Fingers” because he lost three fingers in an accident in an Alaskan cannery, which earned him that nickname.

Itliong was a native of Pangasinan, Philippines. He is one of six children of Artemio and Francesca Itliong. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 in 1929. Itliong spoke multiple Filipino languages, Spanish, Cantonese, and Japanese. In the open forum during the Delano Manongs video screening in Milpitas High School, Johnny admitted his father married four times and had seven children.

As a farmworker, Itliong worked in Alaska where he organized cannery workers and in the farms of Delano and Stockton, California where he organized agricultural unions. On September 8, 1965, start of the grape season, the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee voted to strike against grape growers in Delano, California. This strike became the first time Mexican workers did not break a strike of Filipinos because of Cesar Chavez who agreed with Itliong to work together for a common cause. The group of Chavez and Itliong merged to form the United Farm Workers. While Itliong was the one who approached Chavez to merge, he was skeptical of the merger. He realized that Mexicans would become dominant over the Filipinos when the organizations merged, and that improving work conditions would come at the expense of Filipino farmworkers. Itliong was right… Chavez and his Mexican farm workers were later known nationally while the Filipinos were never mentioned in the farm struggle. In addition to that, the Filipinos lost their farm jobs which jobs were all given to Mexicans, according to Johnny and Dr. Fabros.

The first public art memorial honoring Filipino American farmworkers was unveiled on June 24, 1995 in LA`s Historic Filipino town with Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz as its most prominent historical figures. Another community mural was unveiled three years ago at the Children’s corner of the Milpitas Library. And… 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 United States 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 United States 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.

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 123 sponsored by FilAm Assembly member Rob Bonta incorporating the contributions of the Fil-American farm labor movement in California in the curriculum of California public schools. Also last year. 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 latest recognition he earned was, the City Council of Milpitas recently named a park in Milpitas in his honor, the Larry Itliong Park.

Just like Chavez, Itliong also deserves a space in the classroom and in the history of California farm labor movement! (For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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