MAY 4, 2019


Lest We Forget the “Manongs” of Hawaii, Alaska, California

by Elpidio R. ESTIOKO

According to the book, Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworker’s Movement, “one hundred thousand Filipino men left the Philippines for Hawaii and the mainland United States during the first 30 years of the twentieth century. The earliest groups of these men were recruited to work in the sugar cane and pineapple fields of Hawaii. But many also made their way to the mainland… and found work on farms throughout California and the Pacific Northwest and in Alaska’s canneries.”

The Filipino immigrants in Hawaii, Alaska and California were known as “Manongs,” an Ilokano term of respect for an older person. I don’t know, however, how it carried negative connotation in Hawaii during those early days circa 2012, and even before that, because the title had been used in Hawai’i to refer to Filipinos in a derogatory manner, according to HawaiiNewsNow.

So, instead of finding the cause on how this happened, the University of Hawaii formed Operation Manong (OM) where the founders sought to restore the traditional positive meaning of the word through positive activities. Under the program, university students became “Manongs” and “Manangs” to younger children “Adings.” OM was started by a coalition of University students and faculty, Filipino community leaders, and the Immigrant Services Center (ISC). The organization provided tutoring and mentoring to new Filipino immigrant children.

On March 25, 2012, OM held an anniversary celebration at the Filipino Community Center (FilCom) in Waipahu, Oahu, HI that reflected on best practices and thanked OM alumni, students and staff for their service and leadership in restoring the respect accorded to the word “Manong.”

Among those who attended the March 25 reunion included former Insurance Commissioner and businessman Robin Campaniano; media and television producer Emme Tomimbang; Vice Speaker Joey Manahan; Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairperson Collette Machado; and teachers Johnny Verzon and Milli Asuncion. Amy Agbayani was the first director of OM followed by Melinda Tria Kerkvliet and the current director is former OM Clem Bautista.

In California, their contributions to the labor movement, while not acknowledged for a while, is now slowly but surely being recognized by all sectors. In fact, most of their leaders, including book author Philip Vera Cruz and labor organizer Larry Itliong settled in California and led the some 1,500 farmers in the grape farms of Delano and the canneries of Alaska working for descent wages and exposing farm/factory labor malpractices.

While on Labor Day we are honoring the contributions that workers have made nationwide, in California, we are missing the exploits made by Filipino-Americans. We remember Cesar Chavez’s contribution to the farm labor movement, but little that we know, there’s a Filipino-American who equally contributed to the labor movement in California. That man is Larry Itliong, a native of Pangasinan who immigrated to the US in 1920.

In fact, they don’t even know that Larry Itliong and his group of “Manongs” (Filipino farm workers) were very much far ahead than Chavez’s group in staging a legitimate farm labor strike in Delano, California. Itliong and his Filipino farm members of the West Coast Agricultural Workers (WCAW) which he organized in the 1920’s and the Filipino Farm Labor Union (FFLU) in California which he founded in 1956, successfully led the grape strike of 1965. This drew worldwide attention and support… which ultimately led to the unionization of California’s farm workers. After 1965, Itliong has attained national prominence, together with his co-farm workers/leaders Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines, and Pete Velasco. During the strike, they demanded wages equal to the federal minimum wage. Although they didn’t succeed in negotiating a contract with the Coachella Valley grape grower, they did succeed in gaining higher wages. The strike was known as the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.

The success of the Delano Strike paved the way to a merger between his group and that of Chavez to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Itliong served as its vice president with Cesar Chavez as president.

Most history books mention Chavez and the United Farm Workers but no mention of Itliong and his Filipino group. For many years, Itliong and his group were sent to oblivion until the first public art memorial honoring Filipino American farm workers was unveiled on June 24, 1995 in Los Angeles with Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz as its most prominent historical figures. Also Itliong was posthumously honored in 2010 by inclusion in a mural at California State University.

In 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB123 authored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta mandating the teaching in California schools the contributions of FilAms in the California labor movement. Larry’s son, Johnny Itliong, was made a member of the curriculum committee and the latter told me, in one of our casual meetings, that the committee is moving and hoping to complete the curriculum, so the textbook will be distributed to schools in California soon.

The City of Milpitas with then Mayor Jose Esteves likewise recognized FilAm farm workers’ labor contributions by hanging a community mural of the Manongs led by Itliong and Chavez in the Children’s Corner of the Milpitas Library on October 12, 2012. The mural project was spearheaded by husband and wife Denis and Melissa Nievera-Lozano with the support of the City Council and the Milpitas Library Advisory Commission (LAC).

Also in 2013, Gov. Brown signed into law a bill proclaiming October 25 as Larry Itliong Day with the City of Milpitas also declaring the month of October as Larry Itliong Month.

Still in 2013, the Alvarado Middle School in Union City was renamed by the City Council and the New Haven Unified School District to Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School, in honor of the two FilAm leaders.

These are just a few of the recognitions Itliong and his fellow “Manongs” reaped in their efforts to California’s farm labor movement! For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

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