Larry Itliong was a Filipino American labor leader who organized West Coast farm workers from the 1930s. He rose to fame in the 1960s for leading the grape strike at Delano and teaming up with union leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to claim the rights of agricultural workers. The five-year strike resulted in better wages and benefits for farm workers and led to the eventual formation of the United Farm Workers.
“I think we’re as good as any of them. I think we have the same rights as any of them,” Itliong said in a 1976 speech. “Because in this Constitution it says that everyone has the same rights and justice. ”
Youth and migration to the United States
Modesto “Larry” Dulay Itliong was born on October 25, 1913 in the bucolic town of San Nicolas, in the province of Pangasinan, in the Philippines. He was one of the six children of Francesca Dulay-Itliong and Aretemio Itliong. From an early age, Larry knew he wanted to become a lawyer to fight for the rights of ordinary people.
Itliong was of the “Manong” (Ilocano for “older brother”) generation or the first great wave of Filipino immigrants to the United States between the 1900s and the 1930s. The Manong were mostly young Filipino men who were recruited as a source of cheap labor when the Philippines was still an American colony. They were drawn to the promises of the American Dream only to face hardship and racial discrimination. As Itliong pointed out in his 1976 address to students at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “You go to the United States where they collect money from the trees. Did it happen? Surely not!”
At the age of 14, Itliong emigrated to the United States in the hope of obtaining his law degree. He first arrived in Alaska in 1929 and then found work in various states, from canneries in Alaska to railroads in Montana and farm fields in California. He later earned the nickname “Seven Fingers” after losing three of his fingers due to an accident at work.
Activism, Military Service in WWII
Although he only completed 6th grade in the Philippines and was unable to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer in the United States, Itliong remained passionately committed to advocating for the rights of the poor. In 1930 he joined his first strike and in the same year he co-founded the Alaska Canneries Workers Union. Larry quickly earned his reputation as a spirited young activist and a leading labor organization across the West Coast.
Besides Ilocano, Pangasinense, Tagalog (Filipino) and six other Filipino languages, he is also fluent in English, Japanese, Cantonese and Spanish. Itliong honed his oratory skills to galvanize workers. We would often hear him say “Come on, don’t be afraid!” I will be in front, follow me ”to embolden his compatriots Manong.
Itliong served in the United States Army from 1936 to 1943. He then obtained American citizenship in 1944 for his service in World War II. Back from the war, he was quick to resume his fight for workers’ rights. Itliong moved to Stockton, California, and founded the Philippine Agricultural Workers Union in 1956 and the Multi-Ethnic Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in 1959.
The Delano grape strike
In May 1965, Itliong led a successful strike of Filipino farm workers in the vineyards of Coachella, California. This victory enabled farm workers across central California to protest against low wages and miserable working and living conditions. Among their requests were basic necessities such as clean water and toilets.
Just over three months later, on September 8, 1965, thousands of Filipino American farm workers led by AWOC went on strike in Delano, California. Itliong then called on the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, to join the striking Filipino American farm workers. Chavez initially refused, saying Mexican-American farm workers needed at least two more years to be ready.
“May I let you know that it was our [Filipino] people who called the strike. Then our Mexican brothers followed suit. Since then, the cooperation between these two groups has been good. It seems to me that this is the real beginning of a closer relationship between our people, ”Itliong wrote in a 1967 letter to José M. Leonidas.
Eight days later, on September 16, 1965, Mexican-American farm workers came out and joined the striking Filipinos. AWOC and NFWA quickly merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement with Itliong as deputy director. The Delano Grape Strike lasted five years and became one of the most important labor movements in American history.
Continue the fight for workers’ rights
Itliong resigned from UFW in 1971, citing concerns that the union was straying from its mandate to serve agricultural workers equally. His grievances that led to his resignation included a lack of support and recognition for aging Filipino American farm workers.
Itliong continued his mission to fight injustices and promote workers’ rights after leaving UFW. This included trips to advocate and organize farm workers in Brazil and Chile, and become an elected delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. Back home in California, Itliong oversaw the completion of Agbayani Village, a housing development for retired Filipino farm workers.
Larry Itliong died on February 8, 1977 at the age of 63. He is survived by his wife and seven children. In 2015, Alvarado Middle School in Union City, California was officially renamed Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School, in honor of Itliong and his friend and colleague Filipino-American union leader, Philip Vera Cruz. The State of California officially celebrates October 25 as “Larry Itliong Day” in honor of the union leader’s legacy in the struggle for social and economic justice.
A resolution of the City Council of the City of Carson, California establishing October 25, 2010 as Larry Itliong Day in honor of work and his life’s legacy to promote and fight for the well-being of all workers Agriculture in California ”(City of Carson, California 2010).
Kirby Araullo and Anthony Tayag. Know the History: Who Were the First Filipinos in America? Davis, Calif .: Bulosan Center for Philippine Studies, 2018.
Cordoba, Fred, Dorothy Laigo. Cordova and Albert A. Acena. Forgotten Filipinos, Asian Americans: An Illustrated Essay, 1763-circa 1963. Unidentified place of publication: Demonstration Project for Asian Americans, 1983.
Cruz, Adrian. “Racialized Fields: Asians, Mexicans, and the Struggle of Farm Labor in California.” »Doctoral thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009.
Émile Guillermo. “Restore Larry Itliong to his rightful place during Philippine American History Month.” AALDEF. October 16, 2013. https://www.aaldef.org/blog/restoring-larry-itliong-to-his-rightful-place-during-filipino-american-history-month/.
Larry Itliong. (2021, August 20). Retrieved from https://www.californiamuseum.org/inductee/larry-itliong