Perhaps the most historic day in American farm labor history began one early morning when 1500 Filipino farm workers in Delano, California went to work at their regular time of 4 AM, cut the grapes off the vines as many of them had been doing since they first arrived in the 1920s or 1930s. But this time, they left them at the base of the grape trees, and , as they planned the night before, the Filipino farm workers then proceeded to walk off their jobs. It was September 8, 1965, the first day of the Delano Strike of 1965.
It was the strike that led to the formation of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO; that caused sweeping changes in U.S. farm labor laws; and that led to the formation of the first national political organization of Filipinos in the U.S.
It almost did not happen. The week before, about 150 Filipino farmworkers met at the Filipino Community Hall in Delano to discuss the issue of whether to go on strike. They heard Larry Itliong talk about how he and Pete Velasco had organized 1000 Filipino grape pickers in Coachela Valley, just south of Delano, to go on strike on May 3, 1965 to protest the disparity in wages between those paid to “braceros” (migrant workers brought from Mexico under a government program) and those paid to Filipino farm workers. The Filipinos were paid $1.10 per hour while the braceros received $1.40 an hour.
As described in the documentary “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers” by Marissa Aroy, the vote showed only one in favor of going on strike. Itliong accepted the results of the vote and asked them to return in a few days to talk about it again.
On the night of September 7, 1965, the Filipino farm workers had another vote. This time it was unanimous. They would go on strike the following morning before the growers would get wind of the vote and make plans to stop it.
Larry Itliong had been organizing Filipino workers almost from the day he first landed in California in 1929 from San Nicolas, Pangasinan. He had even organized Filipino workers in the Alaskan canneries in the agricultural off season. In 1956, Itliong organized the Filipino Farm Labor Union and he knew virtually all the Filipino farmworkers..
Five days after the Delano strike was called, the growers began to get Mexican labor to replace the striking Filipino farm workers. Itliong knew that for the Delano strike to succeed, he needed the support of the Mexican workers.
“That’s when I went to see Cesar and asked him to help me,” Itliong told a reporter.
As it happened, Cesar Chavez, the head of the mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), was also based in Delano. He had been organizing Mexican farm workers in California and throughout the southwest. When Itliong approached him about joining the Filipino-led strike, Chavez frankly expressed his misgivings as he thought the strike was at least three years premature. He asked Itliong to wait for three years when his group would be ready.
Itliong told him that the Filipino farmworkers could not wait three years. They were already in their 60s. Itliong implored Chavez to seize the moment and unite Filipinos and Mexicans together.
A united front between the Filipinos and the Mexicans would not be easy as many Mexicans refused to be in the same picket lines as the Filipinos. Growers had historically used Filipinos to break Mexican-led strikes and Mexicans to break Filipino-led strikes.
“For 80 years prior to 1965, every organizing attempt had been defeated, every strike had been crushed, the only law they knew was the law of the jungle and abuse and contempt and violence against farm workers was commonplace,” observed Marc Grossman, a Sacramento political consultant.
Eight days after the Filipinos voted for the strike, the Mexican workers attended a meeting at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano called by Chavez on September 16, 1965, which happened to be Mexican Independence Day.
Cesar Chavez gave an eloquent speech urging the Mexican workers to join their Filipino brothers in the field and go on strike with them. When he called for a vote, the Mexican workers voted unanimously to join the strike.
News of the Filipino farm workers’ strike reached San Francisco and spurred Filipino community leaders in the Bay Area, led by Emil Heredia and Alex Esclamado, to set up a food drive to gather canned goods to bring to Delano to support their kababayans in the picket lines.
After two weeks, the San Francisco Filipinos drove in a convoy to Delano to bring their canned to the Delano Community Hall. It was known as the Filipino Food Caravan of 1965, the forerunner of community efforts to help other Filipinos in need whether across the seas in natural calamities or locally in labor strikes.
(To be continued)
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