You have permission to edit this article.

Filipino-Americans: The forgotten leaders of '65 grape strike

  • Updated
Larry Itliong grape strike UFW

Larry Itliong was a key figure in initiating the Delano grape strike in 1965, but his contributions and those of other Filipino-American labor leaders are not as well known as those of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz don’t have the name recognition of Cesar Chavez, the man who became the face of the farmworkers rights movement 50 years ago. Their names don’t grace any parks or streets, their contributions, and those of other Filipino farm laborers, often forgotten.But a two-day event in Delano is aiming to remind people that Chavez and the Mexican-American workers weren’t the only ones to fight for change.

“Bold Step: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike,” to be held this weekend in Delano, will cover the efforts of Filipino farm laborers to earn fair wages and the five-year grape strike. The event will include keynote speaker Assemblyman Rob Bonta, panel discussions, a screening of Marissa Aroy’s documentary “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers” and dance performances.

The event, put on by the Delano chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, was the idea of two college professors, Dawn Mabalon of San Francisco State University and Robyn Rodriguez of UC Davis, said Alex Edillor, president of the Delano FANHS. Mabalon and Rodriguez visited Delano to tour the site of the grape strike in the spring and suggested to Edillor that the Delano FANHS should create an event for the strike’s 50th anniversary. In just a few months’ time, Edillor and event coordinator Nickie Tuthill-Delute put together “Bold Step.”

“The purpose (of the event) is educational,” Edillor said. “We want to raise awareness of Filipino farmworkers, who are the forgotten heroes of the strike.”

And because the Filipino involvement tends to be overshadowed by Chavez and the United Farm Workers, many don’t know the whole story. Filipino farm laborers harvesting grapes in the 1960s, like other farm laborers of the time, were paid below minimum wage. After a successful strike against grape growers in Coachella, leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee — Itliong, Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco — decided to strike in Delano, setting their grapes on the ground and walking away on Sept. 8, 1965. Eight days later, and after some picket-line crossing, Mexican-American workers and Chavez joined the fight for a living wage.

Edillor and Tuthill-Delute spoke of how when Itliong met with Filipino workers the night before the strike started to propose his plan, not everyone was immediately on board. Risking their livelihoods to join the strike wasn’t a choice any made lightly, but after the meeting, the decision was nearly unanimous, Edillor said.

“We chose ’Bold Step’ (as the event’s name) because it took a lot of tugging to convince everyone to do this,” Tuthill-Delute said.

Both Edillor and Tuthill-Delute’s parents worked in the fields. At the time of the strike, Edillor was a 10-year-old latchkey kid, just starting sixth grade. 

“I was basically unattended a couple hours a day,” he said. On the day of the strike “I was going home, thinking, ’Oh boy, another afternoon watching TV and eating peanut butter sandwiches!’ And my mom and dad were home. I was excited because it was something different.”

Although he might not have understood the significance of his parents’ sudden day off at the time, he does now. Tuthill-Delute, who was 12 or 13 when the strike started, mostly remembers her parents fighting about being out of work. Her parents, like Edillor’s, eventually went back to the fields, the only way they could provide for their family. Tuthill-Delute has memories of her mother and her mother’s cousin, whom she described as “100 percent union,” yelling at each other. The cousin refused to go back to the fields, she said, and ended up becoming homeless until going back to live with his family.

Tuthill-Delute’s family weren’t the only ones who were divided. At church, workers and strikers sat on different sides, worshipping together but separately. Workers were forced to sneak their way back into the fields, she said, or risk a confrontation with strikers. At first, growers hired Mexican-Americas to make up for the Filipino workers’ absence; with Chavez’s involvement, the Mexican-American workers began to strike, too.

After five years of striking and boycotts, strikers and farmers came to an agreement and signed contracts. Despite the strike being initiated by Itliong and Vera Cruz, Edillor wonders why the Filipino workers aren’t remembered.

“I don’t know; maybe it was our fault?” he offered. “When the unions merged, Chavez emerged as a leader ... I think out of necessity. Mexican-American workers far outnumbered Filipino workers.”

That so many people don’t know this part of the United Farm Workers history fueled Edillor and Tuthill-Delute’s work for Bold Step.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” Tuthill-Delute said. “There are streets and schools named after Cesar Chavez. Where’s Larry?”

Although there is Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School in the Bay Area and a memorial bridge named after them across the Filipino American Highway in Southern California, it’s not much compared to the 20-plus schools named after Chavez in California alone, not to mention the parks, libraries and streets here and elsewhere in the United States.

Bold Step’s two full days of events will keep attendees busy and learning. The first day kicks off with registration and refreshments at 8:30 a.m. and a welcome with special guest Paul Chavez (Cesar’s son and president of the Chavez Foundation) and a speech from keynote speaker Bonta at 10 a.m. After lunch, guests will attend three back-to-back panel sessions, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. The day will wrap with a reception and dinner from Lumpia Hut Food Truck starting at 7 p.m. The dinner/reception costs an additional $5.

Things start early on Sunday too, with optional Mass at 9 a.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. From 10:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., guests will be divided into two groups for a bus tour to historically relevant sites; the first group will eat lunch while the second group tours, and vice versa. From 1:30 to 4:15 p.m., guests will attend two more panels before the event closes at 4:30 p.m.

Besides Mass, all Bold Step events will take place at the Filipino Community Hall or Robert F. Kennedy High School.

With more than 20 guest panelists, five sessions and a special welcome meeting, organizing Bold Step was a lot of work for Edillor, Tuthill-Delute and other organizers.

“It’s a labor of love, for me. We all feel indebted to our parents,” Edillor said, Tuthill-Delute agreeing. “We are honoring our parents by doing this.”

The two explained that even people with family ties to the grape strike don’t know about their community’s role in the movement. Edillor spoke of a niece of one FANHS member who didn’t know about the strike until it was mentioned in one of her college courses.

“She was clueless about the significance of Delano as the birthplace of the movement,” he said, adding that educating the younger generation was a key motivation for the event. “And it’s not necessarily their fault (they don’t know). I graduated high school in 1972. Did I know everything that happened in 1922? No. We’re so far removed from it.”

Since Bold Step is the first event of its kind, the organizers don’t know how many people to expect, though they’re estimating 300 to 500 people. On Facebook, more than 200 people have RSVPed. Edillor and Tuthill-Delute expect most will come from Delano and Kern County, but both have heard from people coming from Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

People should come “to get a feel for the history of Delano and the grape strike,” Edillor said. “It’s not very often you get a 50th anniversary of such a seminal moment.”

Recommended for you