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Cesar Chavez Day and the Forgotten Asian Americans

Larry Itliong of the predominantly Pilipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).

Larry Itliong of the predominantly Pilipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).

This Cesar Chavez Day (March 31) reminds us how forgotten stories can perpetuate stereotypes.

Charlotte, an Asian American student leader at Pomona College, asked me how do we ignite people into political action and sweep away the tired public perception of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) as passive and docile. I asked her if she knew the story of Pilipino or Japanese American farm workers in the fields and she admitted she knew very little. Considering the last of the Pilipino farm workers from an earlier period died in 1997 and very little has been written in any depth, most of the students across all races I met that day shared this common amnesia.

The story of Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) has been widely circulated to the point of Cesar’s birthday being designated as a California state holiday and President Obama declaring public support of it becoming a national one. It is a story that has both inspired and been used to awaken the sleeping giant of Latina/o political activism. The UFW battle cry of “Si Se Puede” has been adopted by the current burgeoning immigrant rights movement and its English translation, “Yes We Can,” by Obama in his recent successful presidential run.

However, the story of AAPI farm workers has been lost as well as the true face of AAPIs.

Many do not know that the 1965 Delano Strike, which gave birth to the UFW, was started by Pilipinos, not Cesar Chavez and the Mexican farm workers.

As the summer heat of 1965 ripened the grapes of the Delano fields, Pilipino farm workers walked off the job and struck for dignity and better working conditions. Earlier, Cesar Chavez of the mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) had refused the request of Larry Itliong of the predominantly Pilipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to join the strike. A week after the strike began, Larry approached Cesar again and this time Cesar relented, with pushing from Dolores Huerta and his wife Helen Chavez, and the Mexican workers overwhelmingly voted to join the Pilipino farm workers. Both unions merged to form the UFW. Cesar became the head of the union with Larry as second in command. Dolores Huerta became First Vice President and the Pilipino farm worker leaders filled the rest of the top six leadership positions with Philip Vera Cruz as Second Vice President, Andy Imutan as Third Vice President, and Pete Velasco as Secretary Treasurer.

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Additionally, the strike led to large support from the Pilipino American community with an alliance forming between Pilipino farm workers and Pilipino professionals as the Filipino American Political Alliance (FAPA), the first national political Pilipino organization with Larry Itliong eventually becoming its president. By 1970, over 30 cities had active chapters.

By the time of this strike, many of these Pilipino farm workers had over thirty years experience fighting and striking in the field since they arrived in the late 1920s and 1930s. Most struck within the first year on the job in the US . Even earlier, Japanese American workers actively battled in the fields. Growers thought AAPI workers were too militant and confrontational and began vigorously seeking out Mexican workers, who they saw as passive, subservient and docile.

Over 40 years later, the narrative has flipped. Many perceive Latino/as as central to the revival of the US labor movement and swinging many important political elections in different places like California . Whereas, a number of people label AAPIs as culturally obsequious and compliant.

Like the growers in the past who saw Mexican farm workers as submissive, many people today assume AAPIs come from a place which emphasizes obedience and passivity more than other cultures (Passivity is present in all communities). Community leader Myung Soo Seok once told me that defining Asian values as “not making waves” is an inaccurate “American” interpretation.

This Cesar Chavez Day, we must restore the forgotten heritage of all people forged through struggle and remember the stories of AAPIs as a vibrant political force again.


John Delloro

Originally published by the Asian American Action Fund. Since the posting of this article, we regret to report that the author, John Delloro passed away. He was a committed activist who will be missed.

John Delloro was the Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, LACCD and currently sits on the Legal Advisory Board of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) and the Board of Directors of the PWC. He was one of the co-founders of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California (PWC) and served as the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). For the past decade, he also worked as a regional manager/organizer for SEIU 1000, Union of California State Workers, a staff director/organizer for SEIU 399, the Healthcare Workers Union, and an organizer for AFSCME International and HERE 226, the hotel workers union in Las Vegas. Sadly, John Delloro passed away not long after writing this piece.