Larry Itliong Day
Last Sunday, Oct. 25, was marked by the first celebration of Larry Itliong Day in California, to honor a heroic Filipino labor leader. It was based on a resolution of the California legislature that declared: Larry Itliong was a native of the Philippines and was born on October 25, 1913, in San Nicolas, Pangasinan.
At 15 years of age with only a sixth grade education, Larry Itliong decided to seek out the land of “milk and honey” in order to pursue his studies, and moved to the United States of America in 1929. As a result of the Great Depression, Larry Itliong was forced to work on the railroads and then as a migrant farmworker traveling through Montana, South Dakota, Washington, and finally California. During that time, Larry Itliong learned of the plight suffered by Filipinos and other immigrants working as farm laborers.
Larry Itliong was a prominent leader in one of the greatest social justice movements in the United States of America: the American farm labor movement. He organized a group of 1,500 Filipinos to strike against the grape growers of Delano, California, and continued on that strike for eight days while suffering through violence imposed by the growers’ hired hands and the sheriff’s department, and being thrown out of the labor camp.
However, Larry Itliong remained tenacious and resilient, calling upon César Chávez and his followers to join forces with the Filipinos and strike together. Due partly as a result of Larry Itliong’s persuasiveness, the two groups combined, establishing the United Farm Workers of America Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO, which led to the United Farm Workers of America, one of the greatest unions in the history of the nation. The unification of farm labor workers of different ethnicities was unprecedented at that time, setting an example for future generations of workers and organizers and proving to be one of the reasons for the success of the movement.
The accomplishments and contributions of Larry Itliong should be properly memorialized within the history and culture of the United States of America. Larry Itliong deserves proper recognition for his numerous sacrifices in the name of justice and the suppression of severely inadequate working conditions.
Larry Itliong’s legacy has been acknowledged in part in the renaming of a Union City middle school, formerly known as Alvarado Middle School. The middle school has been renamed Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School in honor of the two labor movement heroes. It is the first school in the United States of America to be named after a Filipino American.
Last Sunday I had the good fortune to be at the Little Manila Center in Stockton, California, for its first celebration of Larry Itliong Day. There was a screening of the Emmy-winning documentary, “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” by filmmaker Marissa Aroy, whose roots are in Delano (pronounced DE-LEY-NO). Then professor Dawn Bohulano Mabalon of San Francisco State University, author of “Little Manila is in the Heart,” spoke about her new project, a biography of Larry Itliong.
Larry Itliong was a tough guy. Typically with a fat cigar in the corner of his mouth. Was called “Seven Fingers” after losing three digits in a cannery accident. With his wiry crewcut, moustache and goatee, he looked villainous.
By 1960, the Filipino manongs—predominantly single males, oppressed by laws forbidding marriage of Filipinos to white women—were already middle-aged. They had been working for 20 to 30 years for white landowners, through Chinese or Japanese tenants who hired the Filipinos as tillers and harvesters (like the inquilino system in the Spanish era). At that time only industrial workers had a legal right to unionize and bargain collectively, and not agricultural workers as well.
The Filipino farm workers were much more militant than the Mexicans; they did not think walking hundreds of miles behind a statue of the Virgin Mary was effective. Larry Itliong forced Cesar Chavez into the alliance by threatening, “If you don’t join us, then when you strike we will break you up with Filipino scabs.”
Speaking at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1976, the year before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Larry said: “I am a mean son of a bitch in terms of my direction fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country. Because I feel we are just as good as any of them. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You’ve got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you.”
October was when Filipinos first arrived in America. The first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States was on Oct. 15, 1587, when the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Esperanza landed at what is now Morro Bay, California (340 kilometers north of Los Angeles), and some “Luzones Indios” came ashore.
The first resolution to set October as Filipino American History Month was in 1992, by the Filipino American National Historical Society. In 2009, the US Congress resolved to officially recognize it as Filipino American History Month in the United States. Last Oct. 2, the White House celebrated it for the first time; part of President Barack Obama’s message was: “Fifty years ago, courageous farm workers in Delano helped bring about progress that would forever change the labor movement—both within the Filipino-American community and for our country as a whole.”
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