FilAms decry film portrays Larry Itliong as mere sidekick to Cesar Chavez

Dante Basco (left) and Michael Pena play Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez, respectively, in controversial film.

Darion Basco (left) and Michael Pena play Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez, respectively, in controversial film.

By Cecile Caguingin-Ochoa

A few events these last two weekends in March protested the Hollywood movie “Cesar Chavez,” starring America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, the wife of the iconic Chavez and directed by actor Diego Luna. Darion Basco, a Filipino American actor, plays Larry Itliong, his character on the sideline.

One was the picket outside of Mann’s Theater on Hollywood Blvd. on March 20, to protest “factual and historical inaccuracies” in the Chavez film. The protesters were led by Larry Itliong’s son Johnny and joined by not only Filipino Americans but also Latinos, waiving huge posters of Larry Itliong.

Larry Itliong, was the feisty labor leader who organized agricultural workers in the 1930s, and rose to national prominence in September 1965, when he, and other Filipinos walked off the farms of table-grape growers, demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage, that became known as the Great Delano Grape Strike. A few days later, Cesar Chavez and the Mexican laborers joined the strike.
In this $10 million-movie, the charisma of Chavez and his approach to peaceful change was definitely a good plot.

Protesters argue that “the movie’s narrative perpetuates the myth that Cesar Chavez was a one-man movement. This is very unfortunate, because Cesar Chavez’s greatness lies in his ability to bring people together, despite so many ‘cooks in the kitchen,’” said muralist and artist Eliseo Art Silva.

Johnny said that one of the film producers offered them a couple of tickets to see the premiere. He did watch the movie and came out disgusted.

“One of the movie’s gross misrepresentations of facts is a scene depicting the signing of the contract outlining reforms resulting from the Great Grape Strike of 1965,” said Itliong’s son. Archived photos show Larry sitting next to Cesar Chavez and Jerry Cohen, an attorney for United Farm Workers’ (UFW) as signers of the contract between UFW and the growers, a victory for the farmers. “Yet this Hollywood movie eliminated my father from the table and instead, showed Larry passively smiling in the sidelines.”

The younger Itliong said he confronted the director at the March 12 showing asking why his father was cut out from this historical photo. Johnny said Luna replied, “It’s movie-making.”

Silva explained that by avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’, which is basically the equal significance Filipino Americans played in the farm labor movement, the film suffers immensely and loses that rare opportunity to truly honor a great man (Chavez), who was a hero for all Americans, not just Chicanos.

“Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez were equally marching side by side, unlike how it was portrayed in the film, where the lone representation of the Filipino American contribution is a Philippine flag being held by a non-Filipino,” Silva said.

In contrast to this film, last Sunday March 23, a capacity sold-out crowd filled the New Parkway Theater in Oakland in the premiere showing of the 30-minute documentary “Delano Manongs,” directed by Marissa Aroy. This is her entry to the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival in May. The film also highlighted CAAMFEST 2014, an 11-day celebration of film, music food and digital media paying tribute to Asian American artists who made significant benchmarks in history.

“Delano Manongs,” is a factual depiction, based on old photos and “films from the agricultural lands” about the primary role of Filipinos in the successful “Great Delano Grape strike of 1965.”

“Viewers can see the contrast: the Hollywood movie shows Larry Itliong not as the militant, older sage and equal of Chavez; but a silent sidekick in awe of the main character,” asserted Silva.

Prominent leaders agree.

“The Filipino farmworkers from the 1920s and the generation of Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, led many, many strikes in the field for fair conditions,” said award-winning author Peter Bacho whose parents were farmworkers and cannery workers from Seattle. “They were very strong, hardened men accustomed to militancy.”
“As a young man, I met Itliong in the 1970s, and he did not have a retiring personality as portrayed in this film. He definitely was articulate and assertive and was leading the strikes even while Chavez was just a young boy. Times were hard. That generation was tough — it had to be tough. Pinoys of that era respected Larry’s aggressiveness.”

“The problem,” said Silva, is there is an obvious attempt to camouflage this part of the narrative. “It will not be a surprise if some viewers would find it disturbing that there are only arbitrary glimpses of Filipino Americans’ involvement, instead of the film making a clear message.”

For example, it was very odd that in one scene Cesar Chavez was speaking in a room-full of Latinos, while a gigantic sign stretches the entire room: FILIPINO AMERICAN COMMUNITY CENTER OF DELANO and a row of portrait photos on the wall, including the Philippines first President, Emilio Aguinaldo.

“There were only four to five Filipinos in the entire hall, all shoved at the back of the room, with Larry Itliong as a passive observer,” lamented Silva whose ‘Gintong Kasaysayan” mural at the Historic Filipino Town in Los Angeles prominently features Itliong.

Attending last Sunday’s “Delano Manongs” premiere was Assemblyman Rob Bonta who spearheaded the California State Senate adoption of AB 123 to re-write school books to reflect the leadership of Filipino Americans and others in the farm labor movement.

Johnny was pleased to hear Bonta’s personal support of the documentary. “Before the picket, I received a call from one of his staffers discouraging that I proceed with the picket of ‘Chavez’ as it would be viewed as divisive by the Hispanic communities,” the young Itliong disclosed.

After I pointed out to Assemblyman Bonta about the discrepancy between the Hollywood movie and the actual historical data as reflected in “Delano Manongs,” he said he is on my side”.

“Even Cesar Chavez will turn in his grave, because inasmuch as he owes a debt of gratitude to Sen. Robert Kennedy for being the champion of the civil rights of workers (which was accurately depicted on film), Cesar was equally indebted to Larry Itliong who had more than 30 years organizing experience and taught himself nine Philippine dialects and three foreign languages (including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish) to become an effective organizer and communicator to non-Spanish speaking members of the union, said Silva.

Cesar basically “parachuted” into Delano, which was already the battlefield of the farm-workers movement thanks to the Delano Manongs who ignited the flame. The movie would have succeeded had it taken a risk in telling the true story of this triumvirate (Bobby Kennedy, Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez) that converged to create an American phenomenon known as Cesar Chavez,” said Silva.

In the meantime, Los Angeles Times reports that “Cesar Chavez,” will screen today March 26 outdoors at the Forty Acres, a parcel of land on Delano’s outskirts that is now a National Historic monument. A few yards across is the
Paolo Agbayani Village, named after a Filipino farmer who died from heat exhaustion during the famers’ 300-mile march from Delano, California to the state’s capital of Sacramento.

A version of this article appeared in the, a content partner of TheFilamLA.

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