Larry Itliong, the Delano Manongs, and the Delano Grape Strikes

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
– Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

Johnny Itliong talks about his father at the I-Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco.

Jonny Itliong talks about his father at the I-Hotel Manilatown Center in San Francisco.

I spent my Sunday afternoon at the I-Hotel Manilatown Center (868 Kearney, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415.399.9580) to see the nearly completed documentary The Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the UFW by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy. The event was sponsored by the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. I first met Marissa in October 2010 when she came to Stockton, CA, to show her film Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland, which highlights the history of the Filipino community in Stockton. The Stockton chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), of which I’m a member, hosted the event, along with the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. At the time, she also included a trailer to her then-current project on the Delano manongs, which prominently features Larry Itliong, the Filipino American labor organizer and leader of the 1,500 Filipinos who walked out of the grape fields on September 8, 1965, which began the Great Delano Grape Strikes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Agbayani Village in Delano.

Agbayani Village in Delano.

Now in the editing stage, the documentary is scheduled to be released this year. To my disappointment, Aroy was not in town, though she had taped an introduction and thank you; however, Sid A. Valledor and Jonny Itliong spoke. Having worked side by side with Itliong and other Filipino American labor leaders, Valledor wrote and published in 2006 The Original Writings of Philip Vera Cruz (Americans With a Philippine Heritage). Cruz was one of the few Filipino Americans to serve on the board of the United Farm Workers Union. I don’t remember how I ended up meeting Sid, but I had attended his symposium on Vera Cruz and my family and I made the pilgrimage to Delano in September 2005. Sid took the group to all the historical sites pertinent to the farm workers’ movement, including Agbayani Village, which was a retirement home built in the 1970s for the manongs – the elderly, single Filipino men who came in the 1920s and 1930s and never married, thanks to the laws at the time that forbade Filipinos from marrying white women. I had since lost touch with Sid, so attending Sunday’s event also reconnected me with this walking history book of that era.

Outside the rooms of Abgayani Village is a courtyard.

Outside the rooms of Abgayani Village. The retirement community was built by volunteers from all around the country and the world.

Jonny Itliong, Larry’s son, drove up from Ventura, CA, the night before attend the event. While he spoke, a slide show of his father played on the screen behind him, and we were treated to family portraits as well as published pictures of his father during the grape strikes and boycotts. During the intermission, I introduced myself to him, explaining that I had read the October 18, 2012, article written about him in the New York Times (“Forgotten Hero of Labor Fight: His Son’s Lonely Quest”). [I had mistakenly thought and told him that I’d read the article in the Los Angeles Times.] I explained that I had e-mailed the journalist and asked that she pass on a note from me. He told me he never got such a note. Later, when he spoke before the crowd, he brought up his disappointment in the article, how it focused on “his lonely quest” to get his father recognized. There was more on the grape strike from the Cesar Chavez perspective, and scant attention was paid on Jonny Itliong’s quest not just to get his father’s name recognized but to widely publicize the truth about why the Filipinos were squeezed out of the UFW. Interestingly, Jonny Itliong reported that the UFW had contacted the journalist and her editors to ensure that she would write a “nonbiased” article [in other words, one that doesn’t put the UFW in an unfavorable light], which she did. When 40 Acres in Delano, the epicenter of labor union activities and early headquarters of the UFW, was proclaimed a historic landmark by the Department of Interior in 2008, Jonny Itliong noted that the UFW did not mention his father or the Filipinos’ contributions. However, thankfully, the park representatives did speak of his father in their presentation.

One of my aunts still picking grapes in her 60s, summer 2005.

One of my aunts still picking grapes in her 60s, summer 2005.

All this is relevant to my novel A Village In the Fields, which I hope to complete and have out sometime in the fall. As Jonny Itliong pointed out, there are many stories about the Filipinos and the Delano Grape Strikes – and they all need to be told. Together these stories will provide a comprehensive history that we need to claim in order to understand ourselves and to guide our future. Whether you are Filipino or not, you need to know about the contributions of Itliong, Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, Ben Gines, and the rest of the Filipino farmworkers, and how they impacted agricultural labor in California and the rest of the country. They need to be recognized for all the work that they did on behalf of the agricultural workers in this country. All the contributions they made and the hard-fought changes they wrought are a mere shadow today, given conditions in the fields today, which is sadly not unlike those of the 1960s. This state of affairs makes requiring us to know our history that much more important.

Stay tuned. The stories are coming.

Ripe Ribier grapes in September - the jewels in the fields.

Ripe Ribier grapes in September – the jewels in the fields.