September 8, 1965: the Filipino farm workers and the Delano grape strikes

After all, it was the Filipinos who started this phase of the farmworkers movement when they alone sat down in the Delano grape fields back in 1965 and started what became known as the ‘farmworkers movement’ that eventually developed into the UFW.
– Philip Vera Cruz, Filipino American labor leader, farmworker, and leader in the Asian American civil rights movement, from Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement

Larry Itliong, circa 1960s.

Larry Itliong, circa 1960s.

Yesterday, September 8th, marked the 48th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Delano Grape Strikes, when hundreds of Filipino farmworkers walked out of the vineyards protesting inhumane working and living conditions. And yet, few Americans know of their contributions and their sacrifices in the history of the agricultural labor movement in this country.

In honor of this day and to celebrate the Filipinos’ historical significance, which coincides with the ongoing revision of my novel-in-progress, here is another excerpt from A Village in the Fields. In this chapter, my main character, Fausto Empleo, meets Larry Itliong, a real-life person who was an important Filipino labor leader and Cesar Chavez’s equal:

After dinner one evening, Prudencio took Fausto outside the mess hall, where Ayong was talking to a short pinoy. Fausto knew the man with the black horn-rimmed glasses and crew cut was Larry Itliong. He often had seen Larry talking to the pinoys in the camp. Prudencio had been threatening to introduce Fausto to him for weeks.

“Larry, this is Fausto Empleo,” Prudencio said, when they reached Ayong’s side.

Smoke swirled in the air as Larry transferred his cigar from one hand to the other. He grasped Fausto’s hand in a vise as if he didn’t have three fingers missing and pumped it vigorously. “You’re from Ilocos Sur?” He spoke out the side of his mouth, as if the cigar were still dangling from the corner of his mouth. “I’m from Pangasinan, Ilocos Norte. Can I get you a cigar?” He frisked the pockets of his shirt and his corduroy pants, which were rolled at the cuff, even as Fausto shook his head.

“You want to know why I have not joined AWOC,” Fausto guessed.

Larry sized him up. “Prudencio says you would be good for the union.”

Fausto shot a look at Prudencio, who had stepped back, shoulder to shoulder with Ayong. “Maybe unions are not the answer to our problems in the field,” Fausto said. “I have been here long enough to see what happens after a strike is settled.”

Larry puffed on his cigar. His cheeks, dark and leathery, swelled with the effort. “Unions are not just about strikes. There are other benefits. There are many tools unions have to solve our problems,” he said as smoke billowed through his lips.

“But striking does not always pay.”

“If we do nothing, the growers in Delano will set our wages and they will never improve conditions in the fields and in the camps—conditions fit for a dog, not humans,” Larry said, squinting at him even as the haze cleared from his face. “We have to keep trying. I have been here for thirty-five years and I have seen progress from Salinas to the Coachella Valley, all the way to the canneries in Alaska. We have to do more now. There must be sacrifice—great sacrifice—if we want to succeed.”

“How is your union better than Cesar Chavez’s organization?” Fausto said.

Larry spit out bits of tobacco from his lips. “We have the strength of the A-F-L-C-I-O behind us and the funds to succeed. Chavez only has two hundred paying members. Those membership fees aren’t enough to do anything.”

“Larry’s been organizing for a long, long time,” Prudencio called out. “He’s a pinoy. He’ll take care of us.”

“I stand for every farm worker in these vineyards.” Larry straightened up, although he was still shorter than Fausto. “We work hard for Filipinos, Mexicans, blacks, whites, Arabs. But we Filipinos have never been given respect. We have always been exploited by everyone here—even after World War II, when Filipinos showed their salt and loyalty to the U-S-A. Some of us became labor leaders because we saw crimes committed against our countrymen and we won’t let it continue with our children. If we Filipinos want respect, we have to fight for it; we have to get it ourselves.”

His words were inspiring, but Fausto held back. Larry seemed to sense his reluctance.

“How long have you been working in the fields?” he wanted to know.

“I cut ‘gras in the Delta in the thirties until the War. I came here in nineteen fifty.”

“What do you have to show for all those years in the fields?” Larry raked his good hand across his crew-cut hair. Shocked, Fausto said nothing, but Larry went on, “If you better the life of farm workers after you, would that effort make your life—not just here—worthy? Will all your struggles then not be in vain?”

It might be too late for him, Fausto thought, but he would fight for a better life for his children. He could say that now with certainty. He shot out his hand. “I am with you.”

Larry smiled, his broad nostrils stretching across his cheeks, the thin slashes of his moustache parting in the middle. He shook Fausto’s hand. Fausto tried to imagine how Larry had lost his fingers. It was his badge for the kind of life he’d led in America. He had been doing what Fausto should have been doing the moment he first worked in the fields—demanding respect. Larry strode off the campgrounds, his maimed hand looming larger than life in the gathering dusk.

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

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