Written by Alfonso Casares
What happened to the Filipino Farm workers after September 7th, 1965?
September 7th, 1965. Farmworkers in Delano, California decided they would go on strike and create what would become widely known as the Delano Grape Strike. Most people know of the farm workers’ movement as a fight led by Cesar Chavez that was not only to demand the rights of farm workers but to determine the rights and position of Mexican-Americans in the United States. What many do not know is that on that day, September 7th, most of those farmworkers were Filipino. This causes one to question what happened to the Filipinos. Surely, there must be a reason for their lack of recognition and future involvement. This essay will ask the important question to often left out: What happened to the Filipino Farm workers after September 7th, 1965?
Filipino farmworkers created the catalyst for the farmworkers movement and the success of the United Farm Workers (UFW). In September of 1965, Filipinos of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) made the important decision of striking. This decision resulted in the Delano Grape strike, the first major strike that would last five years. “It was the strike that eventually made the UFW, the farmworkers movement, and Cesar Chavez famous worldwide” (Scharlin & Villanueva, 36).1 During these five years, the Filipinos’ position of power and voice within the farmworkers struggle would begin to dissolve. “This was the beginning of the Delano grape strike, which unfolded as a minor labor dispute for AWOC but as the first step in the birth of a farmworkers movement of the NFWA (National Farmworkers Association)” (Ganz, 126).
When the Delano strike began, it mostly comprised of Filipinos, but the Filipino’s knew that only with the help of Mexican farmworkers would they have the power to make the strike last. Without their help, it was possible that the Mexican farmworkers could serve the white farm bosses as breakers (workers who broke up the strike). The Filipino farmworkers and their leaders, one being Larry Itliong, understood that the strike would require the help of Cesar Chavez and the Mexican workers, or risk the strike failing just as soon as it had begun. The Mexican farmworkers understood their own sabotage if they did not help the Filipino’s strike. In Why Sometimes David Wins by Marshal Ganz, it was described as such: “If the NFWA (National Farmworkers Association) were to break the AWOC strike, how, they asked themselves, could that prepare them to build an organization one day strong enough to conduct strikes of its own?” (Ganz, 123)2 Although the Filipino farmworkers needed the help of the Mexican farmworkers, they did not know that this move would initiate a soon-to-come shift in power from the Filipinos to the Mexicans.
In 1966, United Farm Workers Association and AWOC merged, signaling an “official recognition that the Filipinos had long since ceased running the strike they had bravely launched.” AWOC experienced, before the merger, a split among themselves concerning the role Mexicans would play in the union. Many Filipinos began to urge against the merge. Some were convinced to join the largest, white-lead union called the Teamsters.1 Filipino farm workers not only feared that Mexican farmworkers would outnumber membership in the union as well as receive greater support, but Filipino farm workers genuinely feared being replaced by Mexican farm workers in the labor market/field (Filipino were less in numbers due to multiple reasons, two being the proximity of Mexico and its large influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States and the Bracero Program). Filipino’s livelihoods were now at stake.
Phillip Vera Cruz describes the merger as a necessity for Chavez. It was Chavez and the UFW desire to have Filipinos joined with the Mexican farmworkers for appearance. Cruz highlights the lack of effort from Chavez and the UFW to organize Filipinos as they did with Mexican workers, or accommodate Filipinos in same manners they accommodated for Mexican workers. For example, many meeting were done in Spanish, creating exclusion and embarrassment for Filipino workers who could not understand the meetings. In the publications in support of the strike, words were written in Spanish, excluding the recruitment of non-Spanish speaking farmworkers and in specific Filipino farmworkers. (here is an example ) Even the decision to place Chavez as director of the merger and Itliong as assistant, despite Itliong’s role as a foreman in creating the strike, shows the almost immediate control Mexican farmworkers had over the strike and what came after.
Agitation grew between the two groups who were meant to unite under the new merger. “Filipinos began feeling like second-class citizens in a Mexican-controlled union” (Pawel, 140).3 Ironically, The Crusades of Chavez by Miriam Pawl explains Chavez involvement in the Grape Strike as forced, then again explains his dependence on the newly formed union after it picked up speed, as forced. It may have been this “forced” nature of the Mexican farmworkers participation that led to the Mexican farmworkers full-fledged control of the farmworkers struggle.
Slowly, Filipino farmworkers dissociated themselves with farm worker’s movement because of hesitancy created by fear of job-loss. They feared being replaced by Mexican workers, but also faced ultimatums from the white farm bosses who wanted Filipino farmworkers to cease their involvement in the farmworkers struggle. After the merger, driven by feelings of “self-preservation and protection,” some Filipinos left the group, some joined the Teamsters (i.e. Ben Gines,).1 Although Cesar Chavez had been a long-time community organizer and advocate, working with Mexican farmworkers and engaging in discussion about farmworkers rights, it was the strike began by the Filipinos that would ignited a flame for Chavez. The strike would soon be led almost exclusively by Chavez and his people. As the strike and the UFW grew, old players who clung to the remains of the strike they had begun such as Larry Itliong, Phillip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan, would fade away, being replaced by new leaders.1
An important quote that sums up this tension within the farmworkers struggle comes from the book Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal Story of the Filipino Farmworkers Movement:
“If you look back over the history of the UFW, you can see that all that has been written about the union has been focused on the Chicanos, the Mexican-American workers and the resources of the union that were spent in organizing were done for the Chicanos. All the churches that have helped the union have been working for the Mexican workers, not the Filipinos. The Filipinos as the major minority in the union were left out. Even if they showed some unity with the Mexicans in the beginning there was no real effort to keep them organized and close in the union.”
Till this day, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers struggle in California is known as a large display of Mexican-American workers’ resistance and resilience. For many Mexican-Americans in California, it is an important part of their long history of struggle for representation and equality. Yet, the vital role of Filipino farmworkers before the UFW and the Delano Grape Strike is too often erased. Filipino farmworkers had a long history of striking and fighting for farmworkers rights and their initiation of the Grape Strike was no random endeavor. But, after the Grape Strike began, Filipino farmworkers, feeling isolated and co-opted, moved towards other forms of activism or removed themselves completely from advocating for workers’ rights. In the history of the United States, the minority voice is left out from the majority voice, but never discussed is the exclusion of the minority voice from the minority voice.
1 Craig Scharlin and Lilia V Villanueva, Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000),36, 45, 49, 144
2 Marshal Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009),126
3 Miriam Pawl, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2014),140