Finding ‘giants’ in the fields of Delano

Bulosan, Itliong and Vera Cruz memorialized in poster images. TFLA photos

Bulosan, Itliong and Vera Cruz memorialized in poster images. TFLA photos

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

Men who had poetry in their soul come silently into the world and live quietly down the years, and yet when they are gone no moon in the sky is lucid enough to compare with the light they shed when they were among the living. ― Carlos Bulosan, “Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction”

One can but admire some 50 travellers, mostly youth and youthful others, driving up to this nondescript of a city on this fine Sunday afternoon – where temperature could rise to 112 degrees on a hot day and the best known two landmarks are its state prisons – North Kern State Prison and Kern Valley State Prison. From Highway 99 (off of I-5), the 200 miles travel from Los Angeles County seems to lead to nowhere.

But the nation also knows Delano as an agricultural city, the center for growing table grapes; a place where almost 50 years ago on September 8, 1965, hundreds of Filipino grape-pickers from the vineyards walked out in masse.

“Their union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC, AFL-CIO), was instrumental in forcing the growers to recognize and accept agricultural workers’ right to form and join a trade-union and engage in collective bargaining,” said Jacklyn Joanino, a young organizer of Destination Delano, a community project recognizing Filipinos’ role in the Great Grape Strike of 1965.

After visiting Orosi farm, the last remaining Filipino farming community in the U.S., the tour progressed to Delano Filipino Community Hall on Glenwood Street where the group aspires to place a national plaque as the site from which the 1965 Grape Strike was launched,” said Joanino.

It was a convergence of students, parents, teachers and bloggers who heard about this “excursion” to re-learn FilAm history. Many were enthused to meet up with those who have worked in the fields and witnessed Larry Itliong and other AWOC leaders Philip Vera Cruz, Andy Imutan, Pete Velasco, among others held signs of “Welga” and walked out from their vineyards. Together with the famous Carlos Bulosan, these four AWOC leaders are the “giants” recognized by “Destination Delano”, deserving of recognition when the U.S. textbooks are re-written.

The students were from the state colleges and universities in San Francisco, Davis, Long Beach, L.A., and advocates for the passing and implementation of AB 123 that proposes to re-write California textbooks to reflect Filipinos’ leadership in the U.S. labor movement. Some were from the Filipino Migrant Center who knows only too well the disparity in wages and working conditions of contemporary domestic workers; and others were concerned citizens.

“ I was born and grew up in Delano but I never read about Larry Itliong or Philip Vera Cruz from our textbooks; it’s always been Cesar Chavez leading the protests in our very soil,” said Kevin Riambon, a sophomore from UCLA. “Until I reached college two years ago, I didn’t realize Filipinos played a huge part in reforming the conditions of the farm workers in America.”

It meant a whole lot for students like Kevin to have his ancestry recognized as contributory to the history of his country. “It builds up my self-esteem and pride of my heritage; that it should stand tall next to the achievements of mainstream culture.”

Rogelio Gadiano's ID co-signed by Chavez and Itliong

Rogelio Gadiano’s ID co-signed by Chavez and Itliong

The group of 50 met with former Delano farm workers Lorraine Agtang, Johnny Itliong, Mary Jane Galviso and Roger Gadiano who were in their teens when they toiled the vineyards alongside Itliong and Cesar Chavez in the early ‘60s. Agtang was one of those who testified before the California Assembly for the passage of AB 123. She showed marks on her fingers that bore the scars of twining grapes from their vines. When the grape strike commenced, the agricultural owners responded by sending goons to beat the strikers, and by turning off the gas, electricity, and water in the labor camps.

“Mexican workers were pitted against Filipino workers,” said Agtang.

Destination Delano is working with local, state and federal agencies to place Delano on the National Registry of historic sites.

“My first pay check working one month of hard farm labor was $40,” said Gadiano. The pay was not parallel with the labor laws at that time.

“The growers prefer the quality of work of the Filipinos, but boy, they did not provide good conditions for them,” said Gadiano. He described the migrant workers’ housing as “kind of a warehouse, with bunk beds and common bathrooms.” No medical coverage, although they were recruited from the homeland.

The afternoon included a visit to the Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village, built by the Filipino farm workers, students and community activists to provide shelter for those who were evicted by the growers from their farms after they joined the boycott and strikes in the ‘60s. The village provided 59 single room units, bathrooms, center a/c and a lounge and dining area that provided daily meals.

We visited Larry Itliong’s gravesite, marked only by a tall tree that Johnny said was given to him to plant by the cemetery supervisor when he worked there as a young boy. He tears up when he recalls how the migrant Filipino workers “gave it all” in the grape fields and when they died, he would see their belongings all bundled up in one luggage they came with. No names, no whereabouts, no relatives to claim those. Just a silent testimony to their contributions in history.

“Our conditions are better now, because of them — fair wages, a medical plan for farm workers, clinics, day care centers, schools,” he said.

Destination Delano, an educational excursion

Destination Delano, an educational excursion

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