A milestone was reached last week in the United States formally and legally recognizing the lifelong work of Filipino-American labor organizer Larry Itliong in pushing racial justice and the rights of farm workers. The state of California will mark a “Larry Itliong Day” every year on Oct. 25, his birthday, according to the bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The new law, which was unanimously passed by the State Assembly last April, also encourages the teaching of the man’s life and work in California public schools, reported Inquirer correspondent Nimfa Rueda. It’s about time. Imagine what Itliong and other Filipino-American labor leaders endured as trailblazers in a time of deep racism. Their contributions to the US farm labor movement have long been unrecognized.
Born in San Nicolas, Pangasinan, in the Philippines, Itliong was only 15 when he arrived in the United States in 1929. Along with many others, he labored in the farms of Montana, South Dakota, Washington and California, experiencing firsthand the terrible conditions that afflicted migrant workers, his countrymen in particular.
As leader of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (Awoc), Itliong lit a fire under the nascent labor movement in California with a first-ever strike in 1965 for improved wages and working conditions in the grape farms of Delano.
He was fiery and vocal when migrant workers’ voices were utterly silenced. He once famously said: “I have that ability to make the white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world. 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 for the rights of Filipinos.”
The truth behind Itliong’s efforts to improve the lot of the “Manong generation”—as the pioneer migrant Filipino workers in the United States were known—has been pushed by Filipino-American groups that speak of his charismatic nature as well as his willingness to share the fruits of his organizing efforts with workers from other countries.
It’s said that Itliong was quite effective as a labor organizer even before the Awoc began collaborating with Mexican-American Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association. Out of their efforts emerged the powerful United Farm Workers of America (Ufwa), but through the years Chavez came to overshadow the story of Itliong’s groundbreaking organizational work.
Itliong was not alone. Other Filipino-American organizers, such as Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, Ben Vines and Andy Imutan, have been similarly excluded from the popular narrative on the seminal California labor movement, as pointed out by an Al Jazeera America article last year. The article also told of Itliong’s son Johnny walking out of a screening of the movie “Cesar Chavez” because it ignored or depicted as passive bystanders the Filipino-American organizers also responsible for the birth of the Ufwa.
But the lapse is (ever so slowly) being corrected. Itliong—who died in 1976 at 63—was one of several Filipino-American labor leaders depicted on a mural installed at the Milpitas City library’s auditorium in 2013. Johnny Itliong was emotional in a speech he delivered at the mural’s unveiling: “My family has been hurting for so many years. We were put aside by history, the government, and the people. Every working person in the United States has been affected by my father’s work.”
Previously, in 2010, Carson City declared its own Larry Itliong Day, followed by Los Angeles County. A school in Union City was renamed Itliong-Vera Middle School—the first school in the United States to be named after Filipino-Americans; Larry Itliong Village, a community that provides public spaces and affordable housing, was opened in the same city.
Itliong and his comrades changed America—and the impact of their fight to raise wages and improve working conditions there endures to this day.
Said State Assembly member Rob Bonta, the bill’s sponsor: “Larry Itliong was one of the greatest labor organizers and leaders in California history. He was a hero not only to the Filipino-American community, but to all Californians and Americans who fought and continue to fight for socioeconomic and racial justice in our state and nation.”
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