By Gayle Gupit Mayor
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Those familiar with the plight of the aging Filipino farm workers in the 1960s, as well as their importance in the American farm labor movement, agree that Larry Dulay Itliong played a pivotal role.
“We do have to remember Larry because the United Farm Workers union has systematically wiped out Larry’s contribution to that union,” said Reynaldo Pascua, a friend of Itliong and president of the Filipino Community of Yakima Valley.
Had it not been for Itliong, there would be no radical revolution leading to better pay and working conditions for all farm workers — an accomplishment almost single-handedly credited to Cesar Chavez.
Bringing awareness to the forgotten Filipino leader, the third stop on a national book tour of “Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong” was held on Saturday, March 16 at the Wing Luke Museum in the Chinatown-International District (ID).
Omitted from textbooks, Itliong was a pioneer in the early farm labor movement who fostered unification between Filipinos and Mexicans.
His first participation in the movement was a lettuce strike in Monroe, Wash. in 1934, when he was 17 years old.
In 1939, Itliong, along with members of the Filipino Agricultural Laborers Association, demanded better wages and went on strike against Stockton’s asparagus growers, and once again in 1948 with the help of the Alaska workers cannery union Local 7.
He founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956, and by 1965, Itliong led the AFL–CIO union Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in fighting for the rights of farmworkers.
In 1965, Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) agreed to join forces with AWOC in a successful five-year strike and boycott against Delano table and wine grape growers, which became known as the Great Delano Grape Strike. The AWOC and NFWA eventually merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW), and Itliong served as assistant director of the UFW under Chavez.
At Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, the book reading and signing of “Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong” displayed the impact of his untold story.
“I’ve been to many book readings in this place. This is the most fantastic book reading that we’ve ever had in this building,” said Beth Takekawa, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum.
During the event, pork belly adobo was provided by Chef Garret Doherty of Lionhead/STREET. The Fil-Am Society Choir of Seattle sang beautiful renditions of Filipino songs. The “Ang Tiffany” of the Filipino Youth Activities (FYA) Drill Team performed Muslim-inspired formations, which incorporated Singkil bamboo pole dance sequences and Escrima fighting sticks techniques — all skillfully choreographed to the beat of drums and kulintang. Readings from “Journey For Justice” were done by young students.
The ID was a befitting place for the Seattle book stop. In the 1920s, Seattle was a main port of entry for Itliong and other Filipinos, and they filled the demand for cheap labor in the farms on the West Coast and salmon canneries in Alaska.
“This is where they actually landed when they first arrived in America in the 1920s. They stayed a few blocks away from this very building,” said Emily P. Lawsin, Filipino American studies professor and national vice president of Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS).
When the Philippine Islands was ceded to the United States by Spain through the Treaty of Paris in 1899, there was a period when Filipinos were considered non-citizen U.S. nationals. During this time, thousands of Filipinos, mostly men, migrated to the United States in search of a better life, but ended up as laborers with little pay and brutal working conditions.
“They were the original kind of migrant workers. They worked in the fields and then they went to Alaska — it was this sort of year-round thing. They were the most unique migrant workers that America ever had,” said Dr. Dorothy Laigo Cordova, founder and executive director of FANHS.
The timely release of the book, written by late historian Dr. Dawn B. Mabalon with Gayle Romasanta and illustrated by Andre Sibayan, aims to introduce school-aged children to the contributions of Itliong and other notable Filipino Americans to the most important social justice movements in the United States.
A bill sponsored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) in the California state assembly will require California public school students to learn about Filipino American contributions to farm labor movement.
To facilitate the instruction in the public school system, Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales’ Pin@y Educational Partnerships, along with Aldrich Sabac, Daisy Lopez, and Aileen Pagtakhan, created an accompanying ethnic studies curriculum for the middle school level that can be downloaded for free on the bridgedelta.com website.
“Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong” and its curriculum are currently being taught at UCLA, the University of Michigan, Bakersfield College, San Francisco State University, public school districts in Northern California, and the Seattle School District.
“This collaboration is really based off of Dawn’s work about Larry Itliong. I want to say it’s the first one because I can’t find one that is very specific to children and is about Filipino American history,” said co-author and Bridge+Delta publisher Gayle Romasanta.
Romasanta and Jesus Gonzalez, widower of author Dr. Dawn B. Mabalon, engaged in a conversation about Itliong and how the book came to be published. The Q&A portion of the event was moderated by Brian Flores, a Filipino American Q13 Fox News anchor.
It is Romasanta’s hope that the next generation will learn from the decades of research by FANHS, community folks, and people in the academy.
“It’s through Cesar Chavez that I have to frame Larry’s story, and hopefully by the end of this, as the years go by, I would love it if I say, ‘How many of you have ever heard of Larry Itliong?’ and we all raise our hands, and the kids raise their hands, and we no longer have to frame it around a certain individual,” said Romasanta.
“Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong” can be purchased at the Wing Luke Museum Marketplace and on bridegedelta.com. A percentage of the proceeds from this book will be donated to Little Manila Rising and FANHS.
Gayle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.