Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The forgotten history of the Filipino laborers who worked with Cesar Chavez

A mural commemorating the late labor leader Philip Vera Cruz, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez, May 2010
A mural commemorating the late labor leader Philip Vera Cruz, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez, May 2010
Photo by TK/Flickr (Creative Commons)

For those closely related to the farm labor movement of the 1960s and 70s, the story of Asian American farm workers and the extent to which these workers were involved in the movement is fairly common knowledge. But for many others familiar with the legacy of labor and civil rights leader César Chávez, whose birthday was celebrated yesterday as a state holiday, the story of the Filipino laborers who worked side by side with him is a piece of near-forgotten history.

The Filipino American culture website featured a film trailer yesterday for a documentary titled "The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the UFW" that tells the story of United Farm Workers of America leaders Larry Itliong, Phillip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco, and Andy Imutan, all of whom were instrumental to the farm labor movement.

On its website, the UFW recognizes the Filipino workers and the union they initially belonged to, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which spearheaded the landmark 1965 Delano grape strike. Shortly before that strike, AWOC had led a walkout of Filipino and Mexican grape harvest workers in the Coachella Valley, where growers employed guest workers from Mexico. From the site:

When Coachella grape growers attempted to pay the local workers less than the imported workers, the Filipinos, many of whom were AWOC members, refused to work.

Coachella grapes, grown in southernmost California, ripen first in the state. Getting the grapes picked and to market quickly is crucial to the Coachella growers' profits. After ten days the growers decided to pay everyone $1.25 per hour, including Chicanos who had joined the Filipinos. Once more, however, no union contract was signed.

At the end of summer the grapes were ripening in the fields around Delano, a farm town north of Bakersfield. Many of the farmworkers from the successful Coachella action had come up to Delano, trailing the grape harvest. Farmworkers demanded $1.25 per hour, and when they didn't receive it, on September 8 nine farms were struck, organized by AWOC's Larry Itliong.

After five days growers began to bring in Chicano scabs from the surrounding area. AWOC approached Chavez and asked the NFWA to join the mostly Filipino strike. At a meeting on September 16, packed with hundreds of workers, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Delano, the NFWA voted unanimously, to shouts of "Viva la Huelga!", to strike too.

After Chávez's National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) merged with the Filipino workers' union to become the UFW, some of the union's top officers were Filipino, among them Vera Cruz and Itliong, whose birthday was recently recognized as a city holiday in Carson. But over the years, as some left due to internal strife, and as Chávez's legacy grew, the involvement of the Filipino workers - and the broader history of their work in the fields, as well as that of Japanese American workers - became increasingly lost to memory.

In a piece that appeared two years ago on the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute website, its former director, the late Filipino American labor and community leader John Delloro, wrote:

This past Cesar Chavez Day (March 31) reminds us how forgotten stories can perpetuate stereotypes. Charlotte, an Asian American student leader at Pomona College, asked me how do we ignite people into political action and sweep away the tired public perception of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) as passive and docile.

I asked her if she knew the story of Pilipino or Japanese American farm workers in the fields and she admitted she knew very little. Considering the last of the Pilipino farm workers from an earlier period died in 1997 and very little has been written in any depth, most of the students across all races shared this common amnesia.

Delloro wrote that by the time of the Delano strike, "many of these Pilipino farm workers had over thirty years experience fighting and striking in the field since they arrived in the late 1920s and 1930s...Even earlier, Japanese workers actively battled in the fields."

Noting that Latino voters are given far greater political weight than Asian Americans, he concluded:

When we reflect on this past Cesar Chavez Day, we must restore the forgotten heritage of all people forged through struggle and remember the stories of AAPIs as a vibrant political force again.