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Filipino American Heritage Month: Reflecting on Organized Labor
By Kayla Butler
As a Filipino-American, I enjoy educating myself on the ways my ancestors and community have both contributed to and impacted the United States. My identity, which is rooted in the history of my people, helps me understand who I am and who I want to be.
When my mother and her family immigrated to the United States in hopes for better opportunities, I think of the constant struggles and barriers that they faced. Before my mother and her siblings joined my grandfather in the United States, my grandfather got a job as a farm worker and picked grapes in Delano where ten years prior, was the site of one of the most famous organized labor strikes in history.
Everyone has heard about the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta --but the story that doesn’t often get told is that of the contributions of Filipino American Larry Itliong during the movement. As we celebrate Filipino American History Month, I wanted to use this platform to amplify the story of a fellow Filipino American, Larry Itliong, and his leadership and activism during the five year long Delano Grape Strike.
Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 from San Nicholas, Philippines when he was 15 years old and began work as a farmer in Alaska. He later moved to Stockton, California where he recruited more than a thousand members to join the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). Eventually, union leaders asked him to organize Filipino grape workers in Delano. It was in Delano on September 7, 1965, that he convinced the grape workers at Filipino Hall to vote to go on strike. The next day, the Delano Grape Strike started, and more than 2,000 Filipino farmworkers marched off vineyards and demanded for wage increases and the right to form a union.
ltliong then contacted Cesar Chavez and asked Mexican farmworkers to join the strike. Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and Dolores Huerta spoke with over a thousand NFWA members who decided to join the Filipinos and AWOC. NFWA and AWOC merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). ltliong and Chavez’s efforts eventually persuaded grocery stores to stop carrying Delano grapes.
Because of organized labor activists like Larry Itilong, Dolores Huerta, and Cesar Chavez--when my grandfather arrived in Delano in 1974 , he was able to join United Farm Workers. And while working in the fields, he was able to make enough money to both save up and attend school. My grandmother often spoke of my grandfather’s contributions as a farmworker and how he went to work every day despite hot temperatures and very little pay.
He would eventually become a civil engineer and most notably after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, he helped redesign the pipelines of the San Francisco Bridge. My grandfather established his own engineering business in Temecula, where a street sign is dedicated to him with his last name “Potestas” written on it. He loved caring for his crops and animals both in the United States and the Philippines, and he and my grandmother eventually returned to their hometown of Cebu, Philippines where he was a plant manager until he passed away in 2015.
As I reflect on my identity and that of being Filipino-American, I often think of how the contributions of my family members have impacted the way I perceive the world today. My family taught me the importance of supporting those who are advocating for better working conditions and wages despite great adversity and racism.
Filipino American history is central to who we are as people and especially critical in analyzing our ancestors' economic and labor contributions to this country. Our experience in this country as Filipino Americans is tied to other struggles and solidarity with other marginalized communities--especially during challenging times and is essential for progress. From Mexican farmworkers joining the cause alongside Filipino farmworkers in the Delano Grape Strike, to the Black Panther Party in Oakland advocating for equal rights of Filipinos--we were successful because of our solidarity & partnership when advocating for change. Filipino American History Month is important to me personally because of my family. It’s a month that both reminds me to celebrate my identity, and reflect on what my people have done--and what work is left to do. Larry Itilong’s work in Delano and my grandfather’s experience in working those same fields inspires me to continue advocating for substantial change-- and reminds me of the importance of inclusivity and standing in solidarity with those who are asking for better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to unionize.