Filipino farm workers began a strike against grape growers in Delano, California, on Sept. 8, 1965. The strike lasted more than five years and ended with a win for the United Farm Workers, a labor union for farm workers in the United States. While these Filipino men helped the UFW win its first contract with growers (white farm owners), their contributions to the Delano Grape Strike and foundation of the UFW are largely overlooked.
In honor of Filipino American History Month in October, Northwestern’s Philippine Student Association, Kaibigan, screened Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement on Oct. 23. “Manong” means “uncle” or “elder” in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines.
Manongs moved to the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s in search of better economic opportunity. The majority of them became migrant farm workers and followed crop cycles across the West Coast.
Though Filipino farmers lived alongside Mexican farmers in cities like Delano, growers separated them on the fields and they never worked together. Consequently, Filipinos and Mexicans participated in different unions. Dolores Huerta, who spoke at NU recently, and César Chávez led the National Farm Workers Association for Mexican farmers, and Larry Itliong led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee for Filipino farmers.
One thousand five hundred Filipino farmers went on strike against grape growers in Delano on Sept. 8, 1965. Growers used intimidation and physical violence to break up the strikers; they turned off the lights, gas and water in labor camps. While the manongs were striking, growers enticed Mexican farmers to take over the manongs’ work with slight wage increases. Mexican workers began crossing the Filipino farmers’ picket line to work the fields.
Itliong resolved to meet with César Chávez and demand his support. Initially, Chávez refused, and told Itliong to wait a few more years. A week later, however, on Sept. 16, Mexican and Filipino farmers voted to go on strike together, joining forces after years of being pitted against each other in the fields. The UFW was formed.
Though the manongs began the grape strike, the majority of national publicity focused on Mexican workers and organizers.
“Naturally, the Filipinos started drifting away,” Itliong said in the documentary.
Growers finally agreed to recognize the UFW as a union and signed a union contract in 1970.
When manongs returned to Delano for the grape harvest season in the fall of 1970, however, they were excluded from the majority of work; they could not get jobs because they did not have enough seniority in the UFW, and union rules favored local farmers over migrant farmers. Manongs also lost their homes because growers closed labor camps.
“We started [the strike]. We lost in the end,” Alex Fabros, a Filipino American labor historian said in the documentary.
The exclusion manongs suffered in the ‘70s should not entail an exclusion from US history lessons today. After watching the documentary, Kaibigan and Asian Pacific American Coalition members expressed frustration over how they never learned about Filipino American history in schools, much less discussed the manongs’ contributions to the UFW movement.
One of the reasons Filipino American histories are marginalized is because they are people of color, and they are further excluded from Asian American histories because when Asian American history is taught, it is typically East Asian-centric. To combat the erasure of Filipino American history, California passed Assembly Bill 123 in 2013; this bill mandated that public schools educate students in grades seven to 12 about the farm labor movement in the United States and include Filipinos’ roles in the movement. Hopefully, more states can follow in California’s footsteps in emphasizing the importance of learning about manong and Filipino American history.
Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement can be viewed here. It is only 30 minutes and tells a narrative integral to United States history.