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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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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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