On a dusty Thursday evening, a couple hundred yards across the railroad tracks from old town Delano, California, Roger Gadiano ambles out of his one-story house to conduct his usual tour.
The gray-haired Filipino man grew up in Delano and can tell you not only his own story but also the story of a small, seemingly prosaic agricultural town. He hops into his aging pickup and points out passing landmarks that any outsider might consider bleak and forgotten: a rundown grocery store, a vacant lot, the second story of an old motel.
To Gadiano, these places are anything but forgotten.
One of the stops on his tour is a graveyard, where he walks to a headstone in the middle of the grounds. This, he proudly declares, is where his old cigar buddy, Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong, is buried.
Gadiano notices dirt on Itliong’s stone. He returns to his truck for a towel and wipes away the mess. Once the headstone is legible again, he stands up and surveys his work. “There,” he grumbles. “Not that Larry really would’ve cared, but I care.”
Gadiano is one of the few Delano residents left who remembers the town’s true history: of hardship, resistance, and resilience in the face of less-than-promising odds. Some fifty years ago, the manongs, elderly Filipino immigrant laborers, abandoned their posts and walked off the grape fields in protest. Their action spearheaded a strike and subsequent boycott that lasted five years. The event would become known as the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.
The Filipinos’ decision to strike turned into a very public battle that appealed not only to other workers but to sympathetic middle-class consumers, as well. Their effort would ultimately have far-reaching implications for workers of color in rural America.
César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers of America are famous names, but history tends to overlook the role that the Filipino manongs played in it all. A successful strike required sacrifice by two groups, not just one. “There would be no César Chávez without Larry Itliong,” Gadiano explains.
An unsung hero, hard around the edges, Larry Itliong never bragged about his work and always put the cause above everything else, says San Francisco State University history professor Dawn Mabalon. Before he moved north to Delano, Itliong spent the spring of 1965 fighting alongside grape workers in the Coachella Valley to raise their hourly pay from a meager $1.10 to $1.40.
After a fight, and many incarcerated strikers, they secured the higher pay. The Delano manongs, meanwhile, expected their wages to improve given the Coachella victory but were dismayed to discover otherwise. At Filipino Community Hall on the evening of Sept. 7, 1965, the group decided to go on strike the following day.
The next morning, the workers picked ripe grapes until noon, when they left the fruit sitting underneath the vines. Then, 1,500 laborers walked off the fields, heading toward Filipino Community Hall.
But another group remained in the fields: The Chicanos continued to work, negating the impact of the Filipino strike by crossing the picket lines. Though these two groups were familiar with each other in town, it was a different story in the fields. The two crews were separated by ethnicity, interacting very little throughout the monotonous workday.
The growers capitalized on this. If one group struck, the growers would use the other group to break the strike.
Lorraine Agtang, who was in school in Delano during the strike, explains that pitting the two ethnic groups against each other was what kept the growers powerful. “When working, the grower would tell our crew how the Mexican crew had picked more grapes than we had,” she recalls. “I was a mestizo, half-Filipino and half-Mexican. I always felt torn between the two cultures.”
Itliong, along with other Filipino leaders like Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, and Andy Imutan, realized that if they were going to win the strike, they could not proceed alone. Together, with Itliong as regional director, these men led and organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). They reached out to Chávez and Huerta, who had formed the mostly-Chicano National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
Initially, Chávez felt unprepared to go on strike, but he, too, understood that overcoming the growers would require a multiethnic effort, explains Mabalon. Ten days after the manongs walked off the fields, the Mexicans voted to join their “brothers” on strike. For the first time, the two groups ate meals and organized workers together, united around a common goal. But the five years it took to reach a resolution weren’t easy for anybody.
“[Itliong] didn’t necessarily agree with everything that César Chávez did, but he gritted his teeth for the sake of building a union. He made mistakes. Chávez made mistakes, too,” says Mabalon.
After several years of unsuccessful picketing, the movement called for a national boycott of table grapes. It was at this point that Delano attracted international attention, along with that of much of America’s sympathetic white middle class. The big businesses were finally taking a hit where it hurt: their wallets.
“César became the face of the movement,” says Gadiano. “And then look at Larry. He had dark glasses, a Fu Manchu, and a cigar. He looked like a tough guy—and he was.” Itliong was relegated to a secondary role within the UFW, and Chávez emerged as the leader of the farm workers labor struggle.
It took years to resolve the strike. The first union contracts were signed on July 29, 1970. Chávez said 95 percent of the strikers had lost their homes, cars, and most of their possessions. But in losing those things, they also had found themselves. Despite all the disagreements, a powerful bond existed. “The cause is always above a single personality, that’s what Philip [Vera Cruz] used to say. It was beyond him, beyond me. It’s crazy to think about. I lived it,” says Gadiano.
Agtang agrees: “That grape strike and boycott would not have succeeded without genuine solidarity” between the two groups. “And that lesson is as important and meaningful today as it was five decades ago,” she explains. “Larry and César insisted that the workers eat together and hold joint union meetings. They insisted grape strikers from both races share the same picket lines. As a result, people got to know one another and friendships grew.”
That high regard runs both ways.
One of Chávez’s grandsons, Andres, spends his time speaking and educating people about his grandfather’s work. He grew up in La Paz, a Central Valley community in Keene, California, which is also home to the National Chávez Center. He explains that his family has always spoken fondly of the Filipinos and that his father refers to them as his uncles.
Mabalon believes there is a basic cultural and historical amnesia regarding Asian American contributions in the United States. Gadiano believes that the UFW and the Chicanos wanted to preserve their own history and didn’t do much to promote the Filipinos in the process. It’s hard enough for one group of color to have a moment in U.S history, he says, but two? Forget about it.
The younger Chávez understands that the Filipinos have, for the most part, been left out of the history books, but he believes that more collaboration between his grandfather’s foundation and the Filipinos will garner ammunition to continue the fight.
“The power and success of this movement stemmed from the fact that it was a multicultural movement, comprised of people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life,” he says. “Together they were powerful; together they made change.”
Stereotypes tell the story of the “quiet” or “successful” Asian, but Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Andy Imutan, Pete Velasco, and the rest of the manongs tell a different story.
And that is a story worth telling.
Alexa Strabuk wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Alexa Strabuk will graduate this year at Pitzer College, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in media studies and digital art.