Meet the Filipino American Civil Rights Icon Who Was Forgotten By History

Larry Itliong dreamed of becoming a lawyer when he immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1929. However, the circumstances of being a Filipino American worker at the time eventually led him to a higher calling.

Itliong began fighting for migrant labor rights during a turbulent time in America, according to the Smithsonian. While more and more people recognize him as a key figure in the Asian-American movement, his story is still unknown to many.

He had a dream

Due to poverty and alleged racism, Itliong did not get the education he needed to become a lawyer. Along with other Filipino migrants, Itliong took jobs wherever he could find them: at salmon canning factories in Alaska, apple orchards in Washington, and California wineries.

Filipinos who remained single due to anti-mixing laws - which forbade interracial marriages - were allowed to move from season to season. This enabled Itliong and his compatriots to see their work in different settings and to see how organized workers could help them improve their working conditions.

After joining his first strike in Washington state with the lettuce workers, Itliong organized and ran the canning companies in Alaska. He lost three fingers in an accident at a canning factory, earning him the nickname "Seven Fingers".

Itliong spent the next several decades fighting for better working conditions for farm workers. He founded and led several unions, including the Filipino Farm Labor Union and the Filipino Voters League in Stockton. He was also involved in the 1948 asparagus strike, the first major agricultural strike after World War II.

He also headed the AFL-CIO's Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which consisted mostly of Filipino migrants. In May 1965, Itliong's group demanded a 15 cents an hour raise in a strike against vineyard owners in Coachella Valley. It was the group's first success as the growers met the terms of the demand after a week.

Itliong then organized the Delano grape strike on September 8, 1965 against table grape growers in Delano, California who refused to comply with the union's demand for $ 1.40 an hour. Itliong and guides Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco left the vineyards along with over 2,000 Filipino farm workers. It was the first organized strike by Filipino workers who fought against exploitation.

According to National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) co-founder Gilbert Padilla, it was the first time worker icon Cesar Chavez learned of the Filipino-American movement. Itliong urged Chavez to join them, and a week later NFWA members joined in their cause.

Chavez's NFWA merged with Itliong's AWOC in 1966 to form the historic United Farm Workers (UFW).

In 1970 the producers signed a contract that made substantial concessions to the farm workers, but benefited the permanent residents - Mexican-American workers - disproportionately over seasonal workers (Filipinos). Itliong left the UFW in 1971.

The success of the strike led to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established nationwide collective bargaining for farm workers.

Itliong, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease on February 8, 1977 at the age of 63, left a legacy that generations of Asian Americans can learn from and be inspired by.
Lost in history

The Delano Grape Strike, among other things, would make Chavez one of the most recognizable civil rights icons in the United States, with his story immortalized in music, film, and other media. Itliong's history and the contributions of many Filipino leaders were mostly footnoted in the Chavez Legacy.

Filipino-American author Gayle Romasanta began writing a children's book about Itliong with author and historian Dawn Mabalon in 2017 after she had not found a book for her daughter.

“Specifically, I was looking for a children's book about Larry Itliong. There was nothing. I was shocked that no one had created a Filipino-American history book for children, ”Romasanta told the Inquirer. “I got a children's book to read about Cesar Chavez, and I was surprised that no one except Cesar Chavez was mentioned that someone else had started the UFW. I knew this wasn't the whole truth, and I knew children across the state were learning a partial truth about the California farm work history, and I wanted to change that. "

Filipino American greatness would generally be forgotten if not recent efforts by Asian Americans to bring it to light. Historians, writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creators have highlighted the story of Itliong and the other Delano "Manongs" to keep their legacy alive.

California is now celebrating October 25th as Larry Itliong Day, which Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed last year, KGET reported.

Featured Image via Newsy (The Delano Manongs)
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