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Larry Itliong, Leader of One of the Nation’s Most Successful Strikes

On September 8, 1965, about 1500 Filipino workers walked off the wine and table grape fields of Delano, California. The Delano grape strike, as it would become known, has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, thrusting the fight for Latino civil rights into the national spotlight—but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked.

Larry Itliong was born in Pangasinan, the Philippines on October 25, 1913, one of six children of Artemio and Francesca Itliong. At the time, the archipelago was a territory of the United States, meaning Itliong didn’t have to go through immigration when he arrived in America in 1929. His timing, however, could scarcely have been worse—the United States was entering the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce.

Like many other Filipino-Americans, Itliong turned to seasonal farm work to survive. Filipinos traveled from salmon canneries in Alaska to farm fields in Washington, Oregon, and California, following the often difficult and low-paying jobs. Itliong learned quickly how dangerous the work could be—he earned the nickname "Seven Fingers" after losing three of his digits in an on-the-job accident (there are conflicting stories of whether the injury occurred while harvesting lettuce, canning salmon, or working on the railroad).

It was with the lettuce workers that he got his first taste of labor organizing, when he joined a strike in Washington state. In the salmon canneries of Alaska, he helped to organize the Alaska Cannery Workers Union. He was also involved in a failed asparagus strike in Stockton, California, in 1948, but by 1953 he was vice president of the Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse Workers Union, which was based in Seattle.

Like other effective Filipino labor organizers, Itliong had a useful tool: a grasp of several languages. Filipino-Americans came from all over the Philippines, and spoke dozens of different languages and dialects. Itliong himself spoke Tagalog, Ilocano, and several Visayan dialects, for a total of nine Filipino languages, according to Dawn Bohulano Mabalon in her book Little Manila Is in the Heart; he also spoke Spanish, Japanese, and Cantonese, his son told The New York Times.

Itliong had other strengths, too: He was active in his community outside of the fields, as a member of a local Filipino Masonic organization, as an officer in the Filipino Community Organization of Stockton, and as the president of the Filipino Voters League in Stockton in 1957.

His experience as an organizer and his deep ties to the Filipino community may have been what led the newly formed Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to recruit him as a paid organizer in 1959. It was there that he met Dolores Huerta, AWOC’s secretary-treasurer and founder of the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights organization. Though Huerta left AWOC shortly after its founding after to join Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), she and Itliong remained friendly—a link that would later prove key in Delano.

Itliong, along with other activists including Philip Vera Cruz and Ben Gines, quickly became key Filipino leaders in AWOC and in the San Joaquin Valley, Matt Garcia writes in his book From the Jaws of Victory. Just five years later, the largely Filipino AWOC and the primarily Hispanic NFWA would join together and become a force to be reckoned with during the Delano grape strike.

"I think Larry probably will always be remembered for his role in the Delano grape strike," Marc Grossman, a spokesman with the United Farm Workers, told mental_floss in a telephone interview. "Many people, when they think of the Delano grape strike, they only think of it as Latino farm workers, and that’s not true. One of the hallmarks that made it so successful, and led to the triumph in the grapes, was the solidarity between the races."

By the time of the Delano strike, Cesar Chavez had already made a name for himself in California as an advocate for Latino rights. The Delano strike thrust Chavez’s union and Latino farm workers into the spotlight, but it was Itliong and the other Delano manongs—an Ilocano term of respect for older male relatives—who actually started the strike.

In 1965, grape growers in the Coachella Valley pushed California legislators to revive the recently ended bracero program, citing fears of a labor shortage. The bracero program had been a series of diplomatic agreements between the U.S. and Mexico allowing U.S. growers to hire and "import" Mexican workers, with supposedly guaranteed rights and a minimum wage. The government complied and restarted the program, with braceros making $1.40 per hour—and Filipino laborers making $1.25 or less.

The Filipino laborers turned to AWOC, Itliong’s union, who permitted a strike; 10 days later, they were given equal wages. But the growers repeated the wage inequality farther north. By the time the fall harvest began in Delano, California, Filipino workers were earning only $1.00 per hour, and this time, the growers refused to reconsider. Workers turned to AWOC again.

"We told them, maybe you’re going to get hungry, maybe you’re going to lose your car, maybe you’re going to lose your house," Itliong recalled in The Fight in the Fields, by Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, and Diana Hembree. "They said, 'We don’t care.'"

The Filipino workers voted to go on strike on September 8, 1965, and for a week, they were alone. There was no reason to believe other farm workers would join them. Growers had a history of pitting farm workers against each other on ethnic lines, Grossman says, hiring Latinos as scabs during Filipino strikes and vice versa. But both Itliong and Chavez were very aware of this history, according to Grossman.

Itliong and Dolores Huerta had also continued to communicate after she left AWOC for Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association, and their communication had created a bridge between the two groups. So when Mexican workers began crossing the lines, the Filipino strike leaders knew they needed to reach out to the NFWA.

"Larry Itliong and I decided to take action by seeing Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association. We met to come up with a plan that would be beneficial for everyone, including the Mexican workers," strike veteran Andy Imutan wrote on the 40th anniversary of the Delano strike.

At first, Chavez was reluctant; he didn’t think the NFWA was ready for a strike, Grossman says, but he knew that the invitation was a rare opportunity.

"When Larry Itliong and [activists] Pete Velasco and Philip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan went to the NFWA and said 'Join our picket lines,' I don’t think there was much debate," he said.

By the time the growers began evicting farm workers from grower-owned housing, Chavez and his union’s board offered their support, and called a general meeting in Delano on September 16 to make it official.

Not everyone wanted the unions to work together, Grossman notes. Some of the Latino members of the NFWA didn’t want to share kitchen facilities or strike on the same lines, he says. And Andy Imutan wrote in later correspondence that some of the Filipino strike leaders quit and became scabs after the unions merged. But for others, such as Huerta and Chavez’s wife Helen, there was no question of joining the strike.

"Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and the other Latino and Filipino leaders of the UFW brought together the two races and cultures that growers had historically [pitted] against each other to break strikes," Lorraine Agtang wrote in a column about her experiences as a strike veteran.

In 1966, after a 400-mile march to draw attention to the strike started with 70 farm workers in Delano and ended with more than 10,000 supporters on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, leaders decided to merge the two unions, creating the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).

As assistant director of the UFWOC, Larry Itliong was Chavez’s second-in-command, and he proved an able right-hand man. He personally answered many of the letters and donations that poured in to support the strike, and traveled with other strikers all over the U.S. to spread the word and ask for support. He also took the lead on organizing a boycott of grapes—now considered one of the largest and most successful boycotts in U.S. history.

"The boycott was a way to transfer the battle from the fields, where the odds were stacked against the strikers, to the cities, where the strikers had a chance," Grossman says.

Itliong also sometimes served as a stand-in for Chavez at rallies and with the press. In this role, he rebutted growers’ claims that strikers were negotiating in bad faith, as well as their request for federal intervention. He and Chavez were also able to help secure an anti-poverty grant for the California Rural Legal Assistance Association to help picketers.

The strike even spread to college campuses. "If you were on a university campus in '60s or '70s, you were boycotting on behalf of farm workers," Grossman says. Car caravans traveled to Delano to join the picket lines on weekends. Itliong and other leaders helped to secure students’ support, speaking at Filipino and student conferences and teaching organizing tactics to the next generation.

The strike and grape boycott lasted five years. In June 1969, grape growers reached out to the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, indicating that they would consider negotiations, and in 1970, the strike finally ended. Itliong sat at the table beside Cesar Chavez as the union and growers signed the first contracts, according to Grossman.

In the wake of the victory, the United Farm Workers worked to ensure better conditions for farm laborers throughout California and beyond. The union created a standard contract that it presented to growers, with the threat of a strike or boycott should growers not accept it.

"We, as Filipinos, are not alone anymore," Itliong said at a rally in 1971. "We have brothers among the Mexicans and the Blacks and in the conscience of the American people."

But the solidarity that sustained the strike didn’t last for everyone once it was over.

According to Mabalon, the UFW focus on nonviolence ran against the Filipino farm workers’ pragmatic sense of self-preservation. They had faced violent racism in the fields and in beatings and bombings in Watsonville, Stockton, and elsewhere, and had no qualms about defending themselves. In other words, Itliong wasn’t shy about being militant when needed. "I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world," Itliong once said. "... I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You've got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you."

The UFW also did away with the labor contractor system the Filipino farm workers had used for decades, and with Latinos outnumbering Filipinos in the new union, many Filipinos worried they would be ignored. Many of the Filipino AWOC members eventually left for the Teamsters or other trade unions.

Itliong left the UFW in October 1971, when he began to question the direction of the union. "I left at my own accord for many reasons," Itliong told fellow organizer Bill Kircher [PDF]. "But my biggest disappointment is that the Organization I participated in to fight for Justice and Dignity is not turning [out] as planned."

Itliong used his new free time to found the Filipino American Political Association. He also focused on improving life for aging Filipinos. The law that gave the Philippines its independence in the early part of the 20th century also capped the number of Filipinos coming into the country, and most of those who immigrated were young, single men looking for work. A lack of Filipinas living in the U.S. might not necessarily have stopped these men from starting families, except that state anti-miscegenation laws barred whites (including Mexican-Americans) from marrying African-Americans or Asians. It wasn’t until 1967, mid-way through the Delano strike, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all anti-miscegenation laws illegal in Loving v. Virginia.

According to Grossman, by the time the grape strike began, many of the farm workers were older men and childless. Many were also homeless by 1970, because they had lived in housing provided by the grape growers before the strike and were evicted. They were too old to go back into the fields.

"You don’t see a lot of older farm workers," Grossman says, pointing out the poor pay and hard work. "That was really the impetus for the Agbayani Village."

Itliong and others had dreamed of a home where these men could live comfortably in retirement. Before he left the UFW, Itliong had left behind plans for a retirement home. The union took these plans and turned them into Paolo Agbayani Village, named after a farm worker who suffered a heart attack and died on the picket line. When finished—construction was overseen by Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard and included 1000 volunteers from all walks of life—the Agbayani Village had 60 apartments, a communal kitchen serving Filipino meals three times a day, a garden, an arcade, and more.

"It was a godsend for the residents," Grossman says. Agbayani Village still stands today at the Forty Acres in Delano, the original headquarters of the UFW, though it no longer has residents. The Forty Acres, including Agbayani Village and other buildings at the site, is now a National Historic Landmark and can be visited year-round.

Larry Itliong died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1977. He was 63.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill declaring October 25 to be Larry Itliong Day in the state. It’s an honor the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, hopes will spread beyond the state’s borders.

"Larry Itliong deserves a national day in his honor," he said. "We're proud to have started with a California day in his honor and there will be celebrations up and down the state—not just this year, but for many years to come."

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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iStock
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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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