Image credit: Bob Thurber
Authored by activists, historians, and memory keepers from Asian-heritage communities, this series documents key moments of past injustice and bravery—revealing connections to the present-day and celebrating movements for change. Read all 4 stories in A History of Resilience here.
Although Filipino Americans currently comprise one-fifth of the Asian American population and are one of the largest Asian American ethnic groups, they are still typically excluded from Asian American narratives and media. When people learn Asian American history, they often are taught about the Chinese and Japanese laborers of the 1800s and not about the Filipinos who arrived in 1587 or formed settlements in Louisiana in the 1700s.
It is for these reasons that historians Fred and Dorothy Cordova first labeled Filipinos as the “Forgotten Asian Americans” in the early 1970s—a label that sadly is still applicable today.
Filipino Americans have even been erased from histories in which we played integral roles. As a primary example, many Americans may not know that Filipino farm workers initiated the Great Delano Grape Strike in 1965 —a protest that would change labor laws across the country. We stood in solidarity when the Mexican farm workers joined the strike and we were there when Filipino and Mexican laborers came together to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Yet our stories rarely were told to the masses, our faces seldomly were included in murals, and our leaders were not immediately recognized with holidays, buildings, street names, or stamps.
As Filipino Americans, we have learned that we can no longer wait for others to tell our stories. If we don’t share our histories, they are likely to be forgotten, erased, or told incorrectly—leaving Filipino Americans to be treated as background characters.
The Great Delano Grape Strike is one of those stories.
The Story of the Strike
In the early 1900s, after the Philippine American War, thousands of Filipinos migrated to the United States, mostly to the West Coast, in search of economic and educational opportunities. They worked in the sugarcane plantations in Hawai’i; the fish canneries of Alaska and Washington; and the lettuce, cauliflower, and grape fields in Central California. By the 1960s, thousands of Filipinos were living in Delano, California (a town just two hours north of Los Angeles). They worked up to 12 hours a day, picking grapes in the scorching sun, and being paid just over a dollar for their day’s work. They lived in barrack-like housing facilities without toilets or running water.
After years of being denied requests to their employers for increased wages and better working conditions, the members of the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—a group that consisted of predominantly Filipino migrants—voted to strike. On September 8th, 1965 over 1500 Filipino farmworkers walked off the grape fields, launching what would later be known as the Great Delano Grape Strike.
Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong met with Cesar Chavez a week later, a leader of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and invited the mostly Mexican NFWA to join AWOC and strike. On September 16, 1965 (eight days after the Filipinos began their strike), NFWA voted to join the strike. By 1966, the two groups joined to create the UFW—a diverse union of agricultural laborers who identified as Filipino, Mexican, Yemeni, and other ethnic groups. Cesar Chavez became UFW’s director, and Larry Itliong became assistant director.
For five years, the strike gained national and international attention, influencing millions to participate in a global boycott on table grapes. The strike ended in July 1970, with Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong signing the historical contract with the growers, demanding for better wages and that better working conditions were met. This was commonly noted as one of the greatest labor movements in American history.
Remembering the Manongs
The Filipinos who led the Delano Grape Strike were a generation of migrant men known as the Manongs—an Ilokano word meaning “older brothers.” Many Manongs arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s as teens and young adults. For decades, they followed the work—routinely trekking between California, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. By the onset of the strike, most of the Manongs were in their 50s and 60s and still engaged in difficult manual labor, while working and living in deplorable conditions.
Anti-miscegenation laws prevented Manongs from marrying outside of their race, limiting their options for starting families. Discriminatory laws restricted their employment opportunities, their ability to own property or to find affordable, humane housing. Many Manongs could not afford to return to the Philippines or feared the U.S. government would not allow their return if they left.
One demand of the strike was to provide sustainable housing for the elderly Manongs without families. In 1974, the Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village opened. It was named after a Manong who died of a heart attack while picketing and was built by volunteer laborers and young Filipino American student activists. The facilities provided housing, a community kitchen, a dining hall, and more.
Continuing the Movement
In recent years, Filipino American scholars and community leaders have been instrumental in ensuring more accurate inclusions of Manongs in U.S. history. Through the archival preservation of records, media, and oral histories, the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) houses the National Pinoy Archives in Seattle; the FANHS museum in Stockton, California; and 40 chapters that promote and preserve regional history. Our presence is found in the UFW archives at Wayne State University in Detroit and through the work of David Bacon, a prominent photographer of the UFW. The Welga Digital Archives - Bulosan Center for Philippine Studies at University of California Davis also gives the public access to written and oral histories of Filipinos in the farm labor movement. Many Filipino scholars have also written about this period in books and articles, accessible to college-aged students. So, while there is evidence that we were indeed there in history, we still need to tell those stories to a larger audience.
In the 2000s, Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and others began to teach the history of the Manongs through writings, conference presentations, and other media that made dissemination of information easier. Beginning in 2013, Rob Bonta—the first Filipino American state assembly member and current California Attorney General—became instrumental in passing California state legislation that mandated teaching about Filipino American farm labor organizing and recognizing Larry Itliong Day in K-12 public schools. In 2014, Marissa Aroy released Delano Manongs, a documentary about Larry Itliong and the unsung Filipino heroes of the movement. In 2018, Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta released a children’s book called Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong
and it remains one of the few children’s books to tell Filipino American history.
The legacies of Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and other Manongs were remembered through the naming of the Itliong/Vera Cruz Middle School in Union City, California, and the Delano Manongs Park in San Jose, California. In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom passed a resolution to declare October 25th as Larry Itliong Day as a state-recognized holiday, and in 2021, Larry Itliong was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
While many Filipino Americans have taken it upon ourselves to tell each other our stories via books, articles, conferences, musicals, documentaries, podcasts, classroom curricula, and more, we hope others will see the value in sharing our stories, too. We call on others to do their part to ensure that Filipino American history is no longer forgotten, but instead one that is visible, valued, and remembered.
About the Authors
Dr. Kevin Nadal is a distinguished Professor of Psychology at the City University of New York. He is considered one of the leading experts in Filipino American Psychology, Queer Psychology, and Microaggression Theory.
Gayle Romasanta’s work has appeared on television, radio, online, journals, and books, such as the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Time, and more. She co-authored the first book about labor leader Larry Itliong, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong with historian Dr. Dawn Mabalon. Currently, she is an artist-in-residence at San Francisco’s Brava Theater, writing and co-composing Larry: A New Musical about Larry Itliong, which recently received a National Endowment for the Arts grant award. She is also the executive director of the Filipino-American Development Foundation, supporting Filipino American organizations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.