The ‘Delano Manongs’ and the importance of historical accuracy

The most effective way of destroying people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
– George Orwell, English author and journalist

Filmmaker Marissa Aroy introduces her documentary to a standing-room-only crowd.

Filmmaker Marissa Aroy introduces her documentary to a standing-room-only crowd.

Having missed the “Delano Manongs” at the CAAMFest 2014 (Center for Asian American Media Film Festival) in Oakland in March, I was so happy to be given another chance to see Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy’s documentary about the Filipinos’ contribution to the Delano grape strike of 1965. The Manilatown Heritage Foundation hosted the screening of “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farmworkers” at the International Hotel Manilatown Center (868 Kearney Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, last Saturday afternoon. Marissa brought to the forefront the “buried” history of the manongs, a term of endearment for the older Filipino bachelors who came to the U.S. in the 1920s to work in the agricultural fields and subsequently struck for higher wages and better work conditions in the Delano vineyards in September 1965, in the heart of the Central Valley of California.

After the 30-minute screening, two local social justice organizers joined Aroy on a Q&A panel. Audience members wanted to hear Aroy’s take on Diego Luna’s biopic, Cesar Chavez, which was released in March. I haven’t seen the feature film, but many in the audience had. I trust the reports that they reported – that the Filipinos were pushed to the background and that the plucky, straight-shooter Filipino labor leader, Larry Itliong, was also relegated to second-class citizen status in the movie despite the fact that Itliong organized the original strike and convinced Chavez to join. In particular, Filipinos were outraged that in the pivotal scene in which the growers finally sign the union contracts Larry Itliong was in the crowd witnessing the signing and not being recognized as one of the negotiators who got the growers to sign in the first place. In reality, Itliong was seated at the table, alongside the growers and Chavez. Critics responded that the Filipinos were being petty, quibbling over an “insignificant” detail as the placement of Larry Itliong in a movie that was, after all, about Cesar Chavez.

Marissa addresses questions about historical accuracy in films.

Among other topics, Marissa addressed questions about historical accuracy in films.

Here is where I call foul. If the detail is inconsequential, why bother deviating from historical truth? When a historical movie deviates from the truth several times, viewers, especially those knowledgeable about the events and the time period, begin to distrust both the person telling the story and the story itself. And those who don’t know the history subsequently accept what they see as the truth. Marissa was asked about that particular scene in which Itliong was placed in the crowd and not at the table. She said she could only conjecture, but from a filmmaker’s perspective, she thought that a stronger, more outspoken character like Itliong – who was sporting a goatee, dark-rimmed glasses, and a cowboy hat at the signing – would “take away” the spotlight from the quieter figure of Chavez and therefore would not be placed prominently in the scene.

Critics again say it’s not about Itliong or the Filipinos. And again, indeed, the movie Cesar Chavez is not. They say, tell your own story. And so Marissa has – she spent five years making the documentary. That’s why it’s important to have a movie like the “Delano Manongs” in circulation. It demands to be seen with a greater distribution. Luckily for us all, Marissa reported that the documentary, which has been shown in limited engagements thus far, will be aired on PBS stations in 2015. But we can’t wait until next year to talk up this documentary and its insistence on recognizing the contributions of the Filipinos to the UFW. Those of us know the truth need to relentlessly educate those who don’t. For me, that’s part of the reason I wrote my novel, A Village in the Fields.

There has been talk of systematic and subtle – to the unassuming public, that is – erasure of the Filipinos from UFW history. It’s sinister in its subtlety. It shows that the gatekeepers of the legacy of the UFW and Chavez feel threatened by the legacy of the Filipinos, which shouldn’t be the case. When we are united against an evil, as was the case with the farm workers fighting against human rights violations, we win. When we break down within, we all lose. So it is with the retelling of this period in time. It’s a disservice to American history to rewrite any part of our national history. Think of Orwell’s words. Give credit where credit is due. The Filipinos started the Delano grape strike and they were instrumental in the creation of the UFW and in the victories gained at the bargaining table. Do your own research. Watch the “Delano Manongs” and spread the word. The truth.

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

Our own grapes of wrath.