Filipino Americans and the Farm Labor Movement

Recently a movie about Cesar Chavez came out that documents the life of Cesar Chavez and his role in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve read that it’s a good movie. One of the things that the movie does is bring out the important but largely forgotten contributions of Filipino Americans to the farm labor movement. Since the 1920s, when Filipinos first learned to organize into unions in Hawaii, Filipinos were important leaders in organizing farmworkers to fight against unfair working conditions. Here is a cartoon I did for the April 16 edition of the Philippines Today to commemorate those forgotten Filipino leaders.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. and Daniel P. Gonzales wrote a good article about some of the history of Filipino Americans in farm labor organizing. They wrote:

Like tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen of the 1920s and 30s, they crossed the Pacific filled with dreams of adventure, better-paying jobs, access to higher education and personal and social advancement. What most found on their arrival in America were economic oppression, brutal working conditions and racial exclusion.

…Hardened and humbled but not humiliated by their experiences, they became a generation of labor organizers—men and women very conscious of their status as “unskilled” workers and immigrants at the bottom of American society. In response, they published newspapers, wrote books and led strikes. They were radicalized by the repressive actions taken against them by both business and government.

…During the 1920s, the Filipinos in Hawaii led by Pablo Manlapit learned how to organize labor unions, stage work slowdowns and hold strikes. After the bloody labor strikes of 1924, many of them fled from blacklisting and government and goon violence and headed on to the mainland, bringing leadership experience and skills with them. When they were confronted by the oppressive labor conditions they were quick to form unions to defend themselves.

Bulosan wrote, “In many ways it was a crime to be a Filipino in California,” because both the growers and the racially prejudiced American Federation of Labor (AFL) were alarmed by their militant stance when they threatened farmers with strikes in order to earn a “living wage.”

In the 1920s, Pablo Manlapit led Filipinos in strikes to better their working conditions. In the 1930s, Filipino leaders Rufo Canete, D. L. Marcuelo, Tomas Lascetonia, Johnny Estigoy, Nick Losada, and Alfonso Castillo created the Filipino Labor Union (FLU) and successfully fought for a minimum wage of 35 cents an hour, an eight-hour workday, the elimination of labor contractors and the end to racial hierarchy in the assignment of farm jobs. In 1938 the Filipino Agricultural Laborers Association (FALA) was founded and it opened its membership to Mexicans and other ethnic groups. It was later renamed the Federated Agricultural Laborers Association (FALA) and it fought for higher wages and better working conditions.

In 1959, labor leaders Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco joined with the AFL-CIO to create the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). Larry Itliong was the vice president of AWOC. Itliong, Vera Cruz, and velasco led a strike in September 1965, the month when grapes were ready to be harvested, to raise their pay to $1.40 an hour and 25 cents for each box of grapes picked. They also hoped to force the growers to recognize their union. On September 16, 1965, at the Filipino Hall on the West Side of Delano, Cesar Chavez held a meeting where the Mexican laborers decided to join the Filipino workers in the strike.
Filipino Americans have a proud history of fighting for the rights for farm laborers. Here is a list of a few of those Filipino leaders.

Pablo Manlapit was a labor organizer and lawyer who helped fight for better pay and better working conditions for Filipino plantation workers in Hawaii. In 1920, Manlapit led a strike of Japanese and Filipino plantation in Oahu workers to raise their wages and get breaks in their work day. In 1924, Pablo Manlapit was convicted of perjury in relation to the Hanepepe Massacre in Kauai in September 9, 1924, though Manlapit was not at the scene. He continued labor organizing in California and in Hawaii, until his permanent expulsion from Hawaii and deportation to the Philippines in 1935.

Rufo Canete was a labor organizer in the 1930s. In 1933, Rufo Canete and other Filipino labor leaders met in Salinas and formed the Filipino Labor Union (FLU). The FLU organized farm workers of all nationalities to fight for an increased minimum wage (to 35 cents per hour), an eight-hour day, employment without racial discrimination, recognition of the union as a bargaining agent and the abolition of labor contractors. On March 19, 1934 they led the Salinas Lettuce Strike, which completely shut down the lucrative industry and the union’s demands were soon granted.

D. L. Marcuelo was a businessman and attorney who helped found the Filipino Labor Union in 1933 and the Filipino American newspaper Three Stars in 1928. As co-editor, Marcuelo pointed out the problems of imperialist exploitation of natural resouces and cheap labor. Marcuelo criticized discrimination and violence against Filipinos in California, especially a riot in Watsonville, California in 1930 where 500 white youths attacked Filipinos for dancing with white women at a dance house.

Larry Itliong was a farm worker and labor organizer who organized cannery and agricultural unions in Alaska, Washington, and California from the late 1930s to the 1960s. In Alaska, he helped found the Alaska Cannery Workers Union. In 1948, Itliong (along with Rudy Delvo, Chris Mensalvas, Philip Vera Cruz, and Ernesto Mangaoang) became involved in the 1948 asparagus strike in Stockton, California, which was the first major agriculture strike after World War II. Itlioing served as a steward and a vice president of the Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 37 in Seattle in the early 1950s. In 1956, Itliong founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in Stockton.

In 1965 Larry Itliong was the leader of the AFL-CIO union Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which voted to strike against the Coachella Valley Grape Growers and the Delano growers. It was during the strike in Delano that Larry Itliong’s group joined Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association in the strike and eventually formed the United Farm Workers.

Philip Vera Cruz was a labor activist who helped Larry Itliong found the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. As a young man, Vera Cruz was briefly in the International Workers of the World. In the 1950s he was a member of the National Farm Labor Union, an AFL-CIO group that worked to improve conditions for farm workers. Philip Vera Cruz was one of the leaders of the 1965 Delano Grape Strike and he served as the second vice president of the United Farm Workers union.

Andy Imutan was in charge of the Stockton and Delano, California chapters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). In 1965 Imutan was part of the Coachella and Delano strikes that eventually led to the formation of the United Farm Workers. During the grape strike, Imutan, Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong and the leaders of the strike insisted that strikers from different races walk the same picketlines and share the same union hall and strike kitchen. Andy Imutan was the first vice president of the United Farm Workers, leading the grape boycott in Baltimore and other east coast cities. In 1974, Imutan helped to found the Paulo Agbayani Village, a 58-unit adobe-brick retirement home for elderly and displaced Filipino American farm workers.

Here are some articles about Filipino American farm labor history

Filipino Farm Labor Organization: A Lesson in Filipino Leadership by Julie Sindel

What Happened When Mexicans and Filipinos Joined Together? A short essay of the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 by Andy Imutan

Filipinos- Forgotten Heroes of the UFW by Alex Fabros Jr. and Daniel P. Gonzales

Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers the webpage of a documentary of the Filipino leaders who played pivotal roles in the 1965 Delano Grape Strike

Last of the Manongs: Aging Voices of a Farm-Labor Fight Find an Audience by Jason DeParle for the New York Times

40th Anniversary of Historic Farm Workers Strike by Rodel Rodis for Asian Week

Filipinos Uniting Farm Workers by AOL.on Education

A youtube video of the Filipino Manongs who ignited the 1965 Delano Grape Strike

Filmmaker Marissa Aroy discuss her documentary Delano Manongs

A youtube video of Larry Itliong Day in 2010

A youtube video to bring awareness of Philip Vera Cruz

In 2005, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History celebrated the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Delano Grape Strike with a panel presentation including Andrew Imutan, past vice president of United Farm Workers Organizing Committee; Luis Valdez, founder El Teatro Campesino; Dolores Huerta, president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and cofounder of the United Farm Workers; and Rep. Rául Grijalv

In 2010 California Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Dolores Huerta pressed California lawmakers to approve his legislation to require public school instruction on the contributions of Filipino Americans to the farm labor movement in California

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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5 Responses to Filipino Americans and the Farm Labor Movement

  1. Al Rojas says:

    I have a question to whoever wrote this piece .”where did the name “United Farm Workers (UFW) name come from,if in fact you wrote this & did your research ,you do not have that history
    correct,so if you can Not answer the Question you ommitted
    that thier were another Union !,the other is the “NFWA” was a Non-Ptofit organization & NOT a Union at the time of the Strike in Delano,so lets get the History as it was & Not as you think. .

    Al Rojas

  2. angelolopez says:

    Hi Al Rojas, I wrote this piece. I researched as best as I could, but if I made a mistake in a fact in this blog, I’m perfectly willing to admit error. What specific part of this blog do you think is wrong? What did the name “United Farm Workers” come from?

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  4. Hey Angelo! Sorry for stumbling late into the party, but wanted to give you props for putting this together. True, Al Rojas, being a deeply respected OG with the Agricultural Workers at the time with Manong Larry and Cesar, that there are some things in this article which should be cleared up. Like, Manong Larry and AWOC voted FIRST to strike against the grape owners on Sept. 7, 1965, making September 8, 1965, the first official day of the strike. THEN Cesar Chavez and his association (not Union), NFWA, joined Larry… not the other way around. All that said, the unfortunate thing is that a lot of history is still being uncovered and written by folks like Johnny Itliong, Manong Larry’s son, in trying to shine light on another side of history that WE are still trying to comprehend and appreciate. Again, I appreciate the time and effort in putting this article together and we’ll all learn more and give props to the first American Heroes of Filipino Ancestry – our Manongs!

  5. ALEX FABROS says:

    Don’t be discouraged by your lack of knowledge of the history of Filipinos in America. It’s a learning process. You’ll make mistakes along the way. Eventually, you’ll get it right. What is most important is that you maintain your interest in finding answers to the questions you encounter about our history. People will call you on the carpet about it but not to worry, especially if they can’t give you constructive criticism. They’re part of the problem as to why our history is forgotten — they don’t share what they know in a meaningful way. They play the “gotcha” game.

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