By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Filipino American producer and director Marissa Aroy has a timely message.<!–more–>
Her documentary, “The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” adds an important, but missing, story about Filipino Americans who stood with Mexican American civil rights icon Cesar Chavez as dedicated members of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. It features “manongs,” the Filipino word for “older brothers” or “older Filipino gentlemen,” who traveled to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s with the shared vision of earning money in white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs.
Once they arrived, most of them realized that they could only find menial jobs, migrating from one labor camp to another. And since most of them were bachelors, they were subject to California’s anti-miscegenation law (1850 to 1948), which banned interracial marriage.
“The Delano Manongs” tells the story of Larry Itliong and about 1,500 Filipino American farm workers in California who walked off their jobs in order to demand fair wages and better working conditions during the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. Other “manongs” include Philip Vera Cruz and Peter Velasco.
Itliong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee merged with Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers. The Filipino American and Mexican American solidarity changed the strike in rural Delano, Calif. into a national movement. Itliong became second-in-command under Chavez.
His son, Johnny Itliong, provides such insights as, “He would stand up to anybody.” In addition to being a cigar-smoking, articulate, union veteran, Larry Itliong raised seven children and spoke seven languages. In the documentary, he said, “I’m not scared of nobody. And I’m a son of a (expletive) in terms of fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country.”
Itliong’s philosophy (“If you’re going to punch me, I’m going to punch you back”) was not the same as Chavez’s. Aroy also said about Itliong, “And so, that’s not really good PR for the union, and it’s very opposite of what Cesar Chavez was after, which was non-violence.”
“A lot of the Filipinos, because that’s how they had grown up, under these really tough union and striking practices, they had to learn what this anti-violence movement, this peaceful movement was about. So that would be another reason why Larry Itliong didn’t become the leader.”
“The Delano Manongs” is a 30-minute documentary. It enlightens all of us that historical accounts of the civil rights movement in the 1960s need to be more inclusive. Filipino American activists deserve the same recognition given to Mexican American activists for organizing farm workers in California.
Aroy has said her main goal is to get the story of these Filipino American farm workers taught in universities and high schools. Some educators and community leaders have agreed with her and have organized community screenings of the film. She pointed out, “The post-1965 generation, they don’t know this history at all.”
Recent interviews with Dolores Huertas, NFWA co-founder with Chavez, and interviews with grape growers provide the documentary with fairness and balance.
Sound recordings of Larry Itliong’s voice used in the film are supplemented with English subtitles to ensure his words (spoken with a slight Filipino accent) are easily understandable.
Most of the original Filipino American farm workers have died. The few survivors left are shown living in Delano’s Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village, a facility created specifically to honor these elderly and displaced Filipino Americans.
“The Delano Manongs” will be broadcast on PBS stations in 2015. (end)
For more information about “The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” go to www.delanomanongs.com.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.