September 8, 1965. That was when about 1,500 Filipinos went out on strike against the grape growers in Delano, California.
– Pete Velasco, Filipino-American activist and Treasurer of the United Farm Union
Today marks the 49th anniversary of the walkout of farm workers from the vineyards in Delano, California. It is a historic day not just for Filipino Americans – whose forefathers struck for better wages and working conditions – farm workers, and the labor movement, but it’s a historic day for every American. The day before, September 7th, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) took a vote to strike and in the early morning of September 8th, AWOC members sat down in the fields, walked out, or did not go to work.
In honor of that day, I offer an excerpt from my novel, A Village in the Fields, Chapter 11: Empty Fields, Empty House (Delano, September 1965-May 1966):
“Friends, come out of the fields! Join us in our struggle! We must all be together to succeed!” Fausto shouted from across the road. When the workers didn’t respond, he cupped his hands to his chapped lips and repeated in Ilocano, “Gagayem, rumuar kayo amin! Masapol nga agtitinulong tayo! Tapno makamtan tayo ti karang-ayan!”
Benny grabbed Fausto’s arm and squeezed it. Fausto imagined that his own face mirrored the mix of surprise and giddiness on his cousin’s face as they watched their fellow pinoys drop their clippers and slowly stream out of the fields. The sun was rising, though the air was cold and the sky tinted pink. Fausto stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. Benny stamped his feet to keep warm. By midday, the sun’s full strength would scorch the earth. When their countrymen crossed the road, Fausto and Benny threw their arms around them, congratulating them for their bravery, but the look in their eyes told them they were not yet convinced they were doing the right thing. None lived in the Cuculich camp or had attended any union meetings. Fausto recognized a handful as regulars at the pool halls and barbershops in Delano; they were local workers, some with families—not the migrant pinoys who had struck down south.
“You heard about the strike in Coachella, eh?” Fausto asked the group of men. “Our countrymen struck for ten days in the spring and the growers gave in. Some of these pinoys have come to Delano expecting the same wages. But the growers here are only paying a dollar ten. Is that fair to any of us?”
All eyes were on Fausto as they shook their heads.
“Then we must fight back!” Benny said. “We must strike for what is fair.”
“But what if the growers doan give in?” an elderly pinoy with milky eyes asked. “I seen what happen in the lettuce fields when nobody backs down.”
“The pinoys who struck down south don’t live here like we do,” another one said.
“Delano is our home. We don’t want our town mad at our families.”
“I have a wife and four kids,” a man in the back called out. With his gray hair, he looked to be the same age as Fausto and Benny. “We cannot feed on uncertainty.”
“Can you guarantee us the strike will end soon?” a stubbly faced pinoy demanded.
“We make sacrifices now to secure our future, manongs.” Fausto hoped that by using the term of respect manong to mean brother they would be more comfortable around him. “All we are asking for is decent wages and a union contract. If we can get all our brothers out of the fields—maybe a thousand today, two thousand tomorrow—then we have power. The strike cannot survive more than ten days. The growers cannot afford to lose their whole crop.” As the men looked at the vines thick with leaves, the ripe berries pulling down the branches, Fausto said, “Two years ago, these growers paid more than any other place in California. This year they are paying less. Do you have such short memories? They are paying less because they can, manongs. Ai, think with your heads!”
“We want the growers to sign contracts to guarantee us fair wages,” Benny said, when the men stared at Fausto in silence. “We are asking for one forty an hour and twenty-five cents a box. This is what you all deserve, manongs. Please listen to us.”
“Then what do we do now?”
“Where do we go?”
“My boss, Mr. Radic, will kick me out of camp,” the milky-eyed pinoy said.
“Manong, how many years do you have left in the fields?” Fausto asked in a gentle voice. When the old man shrugged his shoulders, he went on, “I heard Radic kicks out old pinoys when they can no longer work. He tells them his bunkhouses are not retirement homes or hospitals. He’s not keeping you in his bunkhouse out of charity! He has been overcharging you for years, making money off of you! Will it matter if he’s angry with you?” He couldn’t help but laugh. “Manong, Radic has deducted ten cents every hour you worked in his fields for how many decades now? You own that camp!”
The old man began to weep in his hands, the dirt on his fingers turning muddy. Fausto pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the old man’s eyes.
“I don’t live in Radic’s camp,” the man with the family spoke up, “and I got years of work ahead of me, but I cannot afford to have Radic mad at me.”
Fausto told them thirty farms were being picketed. “Go find work for the growers who are not on the list,” he said. “When the strike ends, then you can go back to Radic.”
So far, he and Benny had avoided scouting and picketing the Cuculich farm. As owner of one of the largest farms, Mr. Cuculich employed hundreds of workers. If all of them left, Larry Itliong told Fausto, the strike would end sooner. Fausto argued that Mr. Cuculich was not like John Depolo, who had a reputation for having the most workers suffer from heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But to Larry, all the growers were the same. Larry advised Fausto and the other pinoy AWOC members to picket the farms of other growers to avoid being punished by their long-time bosses once the strike ended.
The idle workers shifted their feet, hands deep in the pockets of their jeans, waiting for Fausto to speak. “With your help, the strike will end soon,” he assured them.
“Go! Go now!” Benny said, and waved his arms to shoo them away.
They herded them toward the small lot of cars by the shoulder of the road and stood there until everyone piled into their cars and the caravan drove away.
“Can it be this easy?” Benny said to Fausto, as the last of the red taillights disappeared around the corner of the road.
“Ai, nothing worth fighting for is easy. This will be a long journey,” Fausto said.
Down the road small bands of picketing AWOC members—all pinoys, including Prudencio, Ayong, and Fidel—hung around Frank Radic’s property, but Fausto wanted to head back to the Filipino Hall, AWOC’s headquarters. The morning of the strike, Ayong told them the hall was filled with veterans—elderly pinoys who had weathered strikes in the lettuce and asparagus fields since the nineteen-twenties—and farm workers, many with families, who had never engaged in strikes or other union activity. The newcomers were eager to help, but they needed to be educated. Even Fausto didn’t know what to do beyond picketing farms and getting his countrymen and strikebreakers out of the fields.
Benny slapped his palms together to warm them up. “Maybe later we’ll picket the packing sheds and the cold-storage plants along Glenwood Street.”
As they walked to the Bel-Air, a pickup truck veered onto the shoulder of the road and shuddered to a halt inches from Fausto, who stood with shaky legs. He recognized the man with sideburns who hopped out of the cab as one of Frank Radic’s sons. Benny stepped back as the man raised a shotgun above his head, but Fausto didn’t move.
“Get off my land!” Clifford said, pumping the shotgun like a dumbbell.
Fausto pointed to the vineyards across the street. “We are not on your land.”
“Don’t act like you know more than me!” Clifford said.
“All we are asking for is a decent wage,” Benny managed to say.
“You ought to be working like every red-blooded American in this country!” Clifford swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down his skinny neck. “My great grandpa was a sharecropper, but he built this business from the ground up by himself. Now you’re trying to cheat our family without working hard yourself!”
“The government gives growers water for free and these farms live off the sweat of the braceros, Chicanos, Filipinos, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Arabs.” Fausto spoke in a loud voice to drown out his thrashing heartbeat. “This is how these farms grew.”
Clifford worked his mouth open as if he hadn’t expected an old Filipino farm worker to know anything beyond picking grapes and pruning vines. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” He raised the shotgun high in the air and pulled the trigger.
Fausto shook his head to stop his ears from ringing. Benny grabbed his arms and their eyes met, but Fausto brushed off Benny’s hands and the fear in his cousin’s face. As picketers rushed toward them, Clifford hurled the shotgun through the open window of the cab. He revved up the engine and spun the pickup truck around, spitting out dirt beneath the fat tires, before rocketing onto the blacktop and down the road.
“Are you okay?”
Fausto recognized Ayong’s voice, his friend’s knotty fingers on his shoulder. He nodded, though his numbed neck felt as if the Radic boy had aimed for his throat.
“This is not good,” Benny whispered.
“I’m going to cut off that sonavabeech’s balls off with a bolo!” Prudencio sliced the cold air with his straw hat, as other pinoys gathered around Fausto.
Fausto raised his hands. “They’re angry because they’re scared. If enough workers leave, they will lose the whole harvest. They will not risk such a loss.”
“But even if they raise our wages, they will still be angry and harm us somehow,” Benny said in a quiet voice. “I’m afraid.”
Fausto gave Benny a withering look. “If you are afraid, then don’t show it.”
“Listen to Fausto,” Fidel Europa said, leaning in.
“Listen to us all!” Prudencio clapped Benny’s shoulder. “They can break us if we are weak and scared. So be strong, manong. Let us all be strong.”
The pinoys, grim faced and silent, raised their fists above their heads as they retreated to their cars. Prudencio and Ayong were going back to the Cuculich camp to check up on their bunkmates, who had refused to leave camp for work. As Fausto and Benny left, they passed rows and rows of berries hung low on the vines. Like Mr. Cuculich, Frank Radic would not let his grapes be picked until they were sweet. Let them drop to the earth, Fausto entreated. Let them drop until the growers given in. Let the flies be more plentiful in the fields than the rotting grapes and the vanishing workers.