How to Remember Larry

The young Larry Itliong during an Oakland  picket.  Contributed photo.

The young Larry Itliong during a picket. Contributed photo.

By Wilfredo Pascual

Imagine yourself, a seventy-year old quiet man. You have no possessions, no family, no education. You have moved around all your life toiling for powerful people. You had something to eat, a place to keep you warm, but now your body is broken and the end is imminent.

One morning you’re asked, what is the value of your time? A dollar? A few cents more? Why have you come so far?

And then you hear others, poor old men like you, ask the same question: what ultimately is your value as a human being? This is a true story.

Fifty years ago, hundreds of old men spending their twilight years as farm laborers in California, did the unthinkable. They walked away. They were Filipinos who arrived in imperial America in the early 20th century, in the prime of their youth and in search of a dream.

On September 8, 1965, after decades of racism and exploitation, the men went to the fields, harvested grapes, left them on the ground, and walked away. They went on strike. None of them knew that their action would set in motion one of the biggest labor movements in America. Weeks later, Mexican workers joined them.

The strike would give birth to the labor union of farmworkers in the United States and catapult Cesar Chavez as an icon of organized labor.

It led to a 300-mile march to the state capital, joined by blacks, poor whites, Japanese, Arabs, students, church and civic leaders.

The campaign to not buy grapes would spread across the nation. It lasted five years before the union got what they fought for: a contract.

By the time it was all over, the Filipinos, known as the Manongs, were relegated to the background and too old to return to the farm. They returned to Delano where they spent their last years in a house for the elderly built for them.
Seven years later, Cesar Chavez and prominent leaders of the labor movement decided to organize a testimonial luncheon to raise funds for Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong.

He was old and sick and the money could help for his care and maybe a trip back to his homeland. Unfortunately, Larry died a week before the luncheon and so what was originally planned to be a testimonial turned into a memorial in February 1977.

A few days ago, I listened to a cassette tape that recorded the speeches on that day. A lot had happened since – hurt, politics, new battles being fought. But they all came together. Cesar Chavez was the last to speak. Below are excerpts:
“…They had, the Filipino workers, a little bit more going for them than we have. The Filipino community through great struggle had built a hall with a kitchen.

We had nothing. And when the strike started – at least they could serve a warm meal to the workers and they would meet. On the other side, another track, another part of town, the Mexican farm workers worked. Not only did we not have a place to meet, they would not even grant us a place. The only place we could work was a small black church that was about a fifth of this hall. One day Larry came very soon and said look, what we have is yours…
“And so Larry was one of the most generous persons I’ve ever known in my life. And so we celebrate today his memory. But you know, not all of us are like Larry.

You see, very few of us have that great and rare opportunity to be called and be present and be part of that once in a lifetime moment to do the good work, to do people’s work. And Larry was lucky.

For he saw the opportunity, he worked, he worked, he did. He did many things, many things and perhaps very few people know that and I know that better than anybody else.

One of his greatest contributions to the unity of the Chicanos and the Filipinos was his willingness to say, I don’t care if I’m not the number one leader, but I want to see unity.

And then he made it happen. Just made it happen. Larry was willing and selfless for the good of the people…
“The celebration today really is a celebration of Larry’s memory. And we have to put that in very concrete terms so that it means something to people. It’s an on-going memory.

Group of students, workers and community leaders visit Delano to pay tribute to Larry Itliong and the 'Manongs." This photo taken with "Destination Delano." Photo by Cecile Ochoa

Group of students, workers and community leaders visit Delano to pay tribute to Larry Itliong and the ‘Manongs.” This photo taken with “Destination Delano.” Photo by Cecile Ochoa

I know that those who know history will make every effort, and make sure that all our people, whoever they may be in California, Arizona, Florida, Texas, New York, wherever farm workers live and decide to join this union – that they will know history. They will know that every time an election is won we should remember Larry.

Because he made it possible to get that far. And every time a contract is signed, Larry should be remembered. Every time a wage is increased, workers should remember Larry.

And we will remember. And every time that working conditions are better we will remember Larry. Every time someone receives his pension every month, he should be remembered.

And every time people came to the clinic and they get paid health benefits, he should be remembered. Every time a baby is born he should be remembered. It was Larry’s spirit of unity that made that possible.

It’s Larry’s understanding that we have to be together – if we have anything to remember him by – we should also remember what he used to tell all of us: it doesn’t matter if you’re an Arab worker, Puerto Rican worker, a Mexican worker, Filipino… you’re all farm workers.

And that if we don’t understand that and continue to carry out his message of unity among us we shall never really see the day when this union can really come back to Delano and bring back the dignity, the freedom and rights we deserve as workers. That’s how we’re going to remember Larry.”

The State of California recently passed a bill to declare October 25 as Larry Itliong Day.

(Editor’s note: Wilfredo Pascual grew up in the Philippines where his personal essays have won several national awards and have been anthologized. For more than twenty years, he has worked in international development in Asia and Africa in the fields of education and culture. He moved to the United States in 2005 and recently won the 2015 Curt Johnson Prize Award for Nonfiction).
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