By Lorraine Agtang
I’m one of the few living Filipino grape strikers — members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee — who walked out of Delano vineyards on Sept. 8, 1965.
I’m an exception. Most of the Filipino strikers were single men, imported from the Philippines in the 1920s and 1930s, who were not allowed to marry because of the anti-miscegenation laws. My father, Platon Agtang, married my mother, Lorenza, a Mexican, after the California law was repealed.
My six siblings and I lived with our parents for many years in the same farm labor camp, where most of us were born outside Delano. I was 13 when the strike began and we were evicted.
Cesar Chavez’s mostly Latino union, the National Farm Workers Association, joined the grape walkouts 12 days later. Cesar didn’t think his union was ready for a strike, but he joined the Filipinos’ picket lines because it was the right thing to do.
Soon, a handful of Latino members of Cesar’s union wanted to have a vote on whether to work with the Filipinos in our joint strike effort. “They wanted to take a vote to discriminate,” Cesar said in Peter Matthiessen’s 1969 book, “Sal Si Puedes.” “Over my dead body,” Cesar told those Latinos.
“Those of you who don’t like it, I suggest you get out. Or even better, I’ll get out and join the Filipinos.” That ended the debate. The Filipino and Latino unions merged in 1966, to form the United Farm Workers.
My father was a loyal union member. He never broke the strike during its five years. With seven kids to feed, he returned to migrant farm work, spending months at a time laboring as far north as Stockton.
My parents, older siblings, and I went back to work in the table grapes once the strike was won and UFW contracts were signed in 1970. All of us went out on strike again in 1973, and I worked at the UFW medical clinic in Delano.
By then, most of the Filipino grape strikers were too old for field labor. Without families, they had no decent places to live.
With help from volunteers, Cesar proposed to build the Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village. A beautiful adobe-brick Mission-style housing community, it was for the Delano Manongs (older or respected ones) and other ready-to-retire Filipino farm workers who were union members. I was the first manager. Some of the Manongs went with me as far away as Salinas and Stockton to recruit the first residents. There, elderly Filipino workers lived the rest of their years in dignity and security. They had a community kitchen with a Filipino menu, a recreation room, and access to the adjacent medical clinic and social services at the farm workers’ service center.
When California’s farm labor law passed in 1975, I worked as a UFW organizer. I organized farm workers at Delano grape ranches, who were Filipinos, Arabs, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.
Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and the other Latino and Filipino leaders of the UFW brought together the two races and cultures that growers had historically pit against each other to break strikes. I was a mestiza, of mixed race, Filipino and Mexican. Because Filipinos and Latinos united in one union, for the first time in my life, I felt whole as a person who was grounded in both communities.
The first time that AWOC leader Peter Velasco met Cesar Chavez in September 1965, Cesar said, “Hi, brother.” Pete responded in the same way. For the rest of their lives, they never called each other by any other name. That symbolized the genuine solidarity that both races practiced.
That’s also partly why the UFW was the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history. It wasn’t at the expense of any one group.
My destiny was to be a farm worker for the rest of my life. I thought all the roads leading out of Delano ended up in the fields.
The UFW opened my eyes to the world. I moved to Sacramento in 1978, leaving the fields. But I never stopped being active in the farm worker movement. It has never left me.
We can never forget that original group of Filipino workers who started the grape strike and helped begin an historic movement that has lasted 51 years.
They’re mostly gone now. My father, Platon Agtang, worked in the grapes under UFW contract until he was 80, and died at 106. He was always proud of the role he played in history. I’m proud to continue that legacy today. (end)