by Emil Guillermo
November is the month everyone stands back recovers from October, Filipino American History Month.
I can’t let it go without one last note on a Pangasinan native and Filipino American of note, Larry Itliong. It was his birthday on Oct. 25, an official “day” in California. Just not a holiday – you still had to work. But then Itliong was far from a “holy man.” He was just principled.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Itliong and General Colin Powell who died October 18. Smack dab in the middle of our month.
Let’s consider the two icons.
Unlike Powell, Itliong had no medals. He had seven fingers (lost three when he migrated to Alaska and worked in the salmon canneries). And you could usually find him holding a cigar. He wasn’t a soldier. Just a fighter. But he was part of history.
For a time in the late ‘60s, he was seen as the most powerful Filipino American in the country, with politicians courting him for endorsements – most notably, Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in their runs for president.
Itliong’s fame came from starting the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, leading a group of Filipino farmhands in California’s Central Valley that ultimately formed the basis of the United Farm Workers Union.
Cesar Chavez’s union? That’s the problem. It was Itliong who started it all, demanding that growers pay workers $1.40 an hour.
Chavez and his group joined days after the strike began, but it was Itliong and the Filipinos who were affiliated with the AFL-CIO that essentially merged labor rights with the civil rights movement in the U.S.People remember Chavez as a national hero, naming schools and parks after him. Not Itliong.
But that’s starting to change. This weekend in the Central Valley, where Filipino and Mexican Americans still work the fields, they named a community center for Itliong.
One thing that happened is a statement made by Dolores Huerta, a UFW leader with Chavez. Huerta told a group of Larry Itliong Day celebrants that she “organized” Itliong.
A joke, right? Let’s hope. Huerta, who has been honored by the Obama Administration with a medal knows the real history. Itliong was the leader of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) which was affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
I’ve spoken to everyone involved in starting the strike. Huerta knows better. Itliong was the leader of the Filipinos who made up AWOC and forged that merger in 1965 with Chavez’s National Farmworkers Association which wasn’t even a union. But they had people. That’s how the UFW was created.
It’s been said that historians and journalists overlooked Itliong and looked uncritically at Chavez because of the latter’s charismatic sense that came from adopting the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Dr. King.
That was a stark contrast to a battle-hardened Itliong, who saw decades of often violent racism in the fields but who still evolved into a principled union man.
So, Chavez may have been the man who said yes, “Si Se Puede.”But Itliong knew the power of the strike and just saying no to the growers; no to those who would attempt to buy him off. And ultimately, it was also no to the UFW when Itliong disagreed in its strategy and tactics.
Filipinos wanted to fight and strike. Chavez wanted to do hunger strikes and march from the fields to the state capitol in Sacramento.
As one Itliong loyalist, the late Ernesto Mabalon, said of Chavez, “Marching 366 miles behind a statue of the Virgin Mary is not a strike.”Chavez needed Itliong to show him the way. Itliong may not have had medals. But he had principle.
Here’s a story he told to Asian American history students at UC Santa Cruz in 1976.“A lot want to buy me off,” Itliong told the students. “One of the biggest organizations that I grew up with in this country offered me $200,000.”Itliong described the offer: “They said, Larry Itliong, we know you need money. You’re doing a good job in California. We’ll give you $200,000 to do whatever you want to do.”But then he described the conditions.
The money would be his “if you’re going to help Cesar Chavez run the service center,” Itliong said on the tape.
This was after he left the United Farm Workers union as a VP to Chavez. It was as if the union acknowledged Chavez needed Itliong to unify the two biggest groups in the fields, the Mexicans and the Filipinos.“You know what I tell them,” he said. “I don’t need that $200,000. I can eat rice and pusit (squid), bagoong (anchovy paste), mango. I don’t need $200,000.”He said young Pinoys with him were amazed by his refusal.
“I said, $200,000 to sell out my countrymen?” Itliong asked rhetorically. “I figure we have about 350,000 Filipinos in California. That’s only $200,000. That’s not even $1 a head. No, I don’t want your money. If I want to sell my countrymen, then give me $50 million. I’ll take it.”Itliong would never sell out his fellow Filipinos. And that’s why we don’t forget him and not just on Filipino American History Month.
More principled than Colin Powell?
Surely, principles come into play in Powell’s story. Recently when considering Powell, I may have given him too much credit when I was writing as a human being at the moment.
The news had broken of Powell’s death, and I was simply reacting at face value, in sympathy and sorrow at the loss. A man of uniform and medals, a BIPOC American success story had died.
I did not thoughtfully consider his mistakes.
I did mention how Powell himself admitted a “blot” on his record: his speech before the United Nations Security Council in 2003, in which he falsely declared Saddam Hussein had the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction.
It was used to justify the Iraq War, but we now know Saddam had no such capability. Powell should have known better. And he should have resigned instead of playing into the “good soldier” role, following the dictates of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.But as it turns out, it was just the most egregious of a few blots.
Last week, a friend asked, “What about My Lai?”The rape and massacre of hundreds of innocent Vietnamese people took place in March 1968. Dozens were charged in the murder, but only one man was convicted, Lt. William Calley, Jr., the platoon leader. His life sentence turned into just 3 ½ years under house arrest.
As Charles Kaiser wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2009, Powell as a young Army Major was asked to investigate a soldier’s letter that described the atrocities against the Vietnamese people.
Powell rejected the charges and wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”Powell was learning how to play the game all too well. And when he found himself at the moral crossroads, he did not always do the right thing.
A guest editorial in the New York Times by Theodore Johnson, entitled “The Paradox of Colin Powell,” spoke to the contradictions in assessing the man. Soldier, statesman. African American, Republican.
As I have, the author also looked to Powell as a “first,” and what is implied when one who is the only BIPOC in the room.
It’s a survival game at the top. Does it matter what you stand for if you’re no longer standing? So you say what you must, and not what you should. Not if you’re still carrying someone else’s water.
That’s how one gets set up to be the shiny hood ornament on a Bush-Cheney armored tank. That’s how blots are created along the way.
Powell beat off the critics with his charisma and medals. He flashed some principles later in public life. Bucking the GOP to back Obama in 2008. Then again, as a Never-Trumper, when he left the Republican party after Jan. 6.
It may not balance all the blots of an imperfect leader, but that’s all part of the paradox. And after the last four years, all the leadership meters are askew.
As for me, I considered Powell at the moment, October 2021. It informed the compassion I felt for Powell the man now, on the week he passed.
For that, I’m not ashamed.
This we can say about the soldier/politician/human being Colin Powell: He made mistakes. But he wasn’t a mistake.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. In his career, he’s been a member of the Advertiser editorial board and a Star-Bulletin columnist. He was also the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” See his vlog on www.amok.com; Twitter @emilamok.
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