by Emil Guillermo
Here’s a test of your electoral Filipino-ness.
If Larry Itliong were on the ballot would you vote for him?
Such an existential question for Democracy beyond donkey or elephant. Caribou?
Would Larry be your guy?
The correct answer: Larry wouldn’t be on the ballot.
Not his style. He was the fighter. The guy outside, chomping a cigar. Holding the picket sign like he did on Sept. 8, 1965 when he led the Filipinos in the great Delano grape strike.
I’m talking about Itliong now because his birthday is a marker for Filipino American History Month.
Just as Oct. 18, 1587 is a marker for the first Filipinos to what is now Morro Bay, California, the first documented arrival of Filipinos to what is now part of the continental U.S., Larry was a Filipino first.
And he was first a Filipino on Oct.25, 1913, his birthday.
In 2015 then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill establishing Larry Itliong Day every Oct. 25.Larry Itliong, Larry Itliong. Larry Itliong.
Not Rishi Sunak, the new British Prime minister. And what a nice Diwali gift to our South Asian brothers and sisters in the UK.
But for Filipinos, Oct. 25 is for the Filipino American union leader who merged the labor and the civil rights era by starting the aforementioned Delano grape strike. Itliong was the spark, the first to lead the unionists to the picket line.
History demands we correct the record. It was definitely Larry Itliong, not Cesar Chavez, the man for whom they name streets and monuments and schools and libraries.
Chavez was in the fight for the long run, but first, he had to be dragged in by Itliong and the Filipinos. They were the unionists representing the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AFL-CIO). Chavez’s was but a fledgling community group of new arrivals from Mexico. Not a union. But there were more of them, and even Itliong realized he needed the mass of workers to boost the number of aging Filipino manongs, who had worked in the fields for decades.
That’s the real story. But Itliong is rarely remembered. Until we mention his name and people discover Filipino American history, Itliong is like a missing piece of a puzzle no one knew existed.
But Larry was there. We just didn’t see him, like the others. The manongs who came to America in the 20s, my father’s generation.
Larry was like my father, but younger. He came to America in 1929 from Pangasinan, and while my dad stayed in San Francisco to work in the restaurants, Itliong went straight to the fields to Stockton and then up and down the west coast to Alaska. There he worked the canneries and lost some fingers. That’s how he got the nickname “Seven Fingers.”
Larry was a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a crew cut, a cigar in his mouth, and the gamble in his heart.
He took risks. He loved the fight, the struggle. It’s what makes a union leader.
While he provided that initial dream of the Delano Strike, he chafed under the organization that resulted after the merger of the two groups. He left the union after a short time.
In taped lectures he gave at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Itliong showed his personality as a gruff philosopher. “You go to the United States, where they pick money on trees,” Itliong said. “Did that happen? Hell, no.”
When Itliong first arrived, he found Filipinos in the fields making less than a dime an hour. He started his first labor strike in 1930.“I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world,” Itliong said in that lecture. “I could make him think, and I could make them recognize that I’m a mean son of bitch in terms of my direction, fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in the Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You’ve got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you.”
Itliong had the belief and the fight in him.He needed it as he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which took his life on Feb. 8, 1977. That day also happens to be my father’s birthday. Just another psychic coincidence to make sure we don’t forget how connected we are to the past.
So wherever you are, pause to remember Manong Larry.
March somewhere to remember his day. By yourself, if need be. Make it a walk with purpose.
Take a risk. Blow a smoke ring. Stand up and shout for Filipinos in America.
It’s Larry’s day. He’s part of our history. Let his memory close out this year’s Filipino American History Month.
Now, what if he were Rishi Sunak?
Pretend it’s a parlor game. Larry used to talk about being true to being Filipino and not selling out “to the man.”
He would brag about people offering him money to do things politically. Not bribes, just compensation for backing candidates, or even to help Cesar Chavez with the union after he left.
Because he stood up for himself as an individual, free and unencumbered, he didn’t rise traditionally.
He would say he was happy with his bagoong and tomatoes, his pusit and rice. He was his own man.
What would he have been with a little more polish?
Could he have risen to the top like the new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak?In his day, Itliong was courted by political leaders and bragged about being a guy with a high school education being in demand by the powerful.
But it wasn’t his world or his time.
Sunak, the son of Indian immigrants from Africa, born in Britain, attended the best schools including Stanford, is the classic latter-day smart brown guy, with a touch of privilege and money. He made his own at Goldman Sachs, then married into Indian wealth.
He is a calculatingly obnoxious made man.
Which may be why he gets the reaction he does. He was somewhat humbled when he was shunned the first time for prime minister a few weeks ago when Liz Truss was selected.
Sunak was seen as “too elite.”
Too elite? A brown man in perfect white face? The revenge of colonialism, Sunak is beyond the stiff upper lip. He’s the brown man as a white mannequin. He’s the curse of Mountbatten and Churchill combined. Coming back to run the whole damn country.
It would be sweet under most circumstances. But the knock-on Sunak is he really is out of touch. He doesn’t know the poor South Asians in Britain. He knows economics. He knows how to add to the dole. But he also knows to cut it. He’s a conservative, slightly more moderate, less of a “trickle down” type, than Thatcherites. But he is a conservative.
And Indians in lower classes see him as both privileged and foreign. And lacking the fight and fury of a compassionate leader who thinks about them. The people. It’s a problem for rich elite guys.
In other words, he’s not for the little guy. He’s more like a big guy who needs to be cut down to size.
Sunak? Frankly, right now, he could use a little bit of Itliong.
Of course, you’re voting.
There is no excuse to not vote. So, let’s just assume you are. And fortunately, Hawaii has same-day registration. Go to an election center.
In case you were out surfing, this is the most important election for our democracy. I just listened to the Trump Tapes, the interviews by Bob Woodward of the former president.
It’s one thing to read about all the things Trump has done, but to hear him talk about it is beyond infuriating. And yet Trump-backed election deniers, conservative Republicans who believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, look to be ahead in the pre-election polls.
If they win on a lie and create a new majority going forward, the future will not be pretty for the “little guy.”
Is inflation your worry? The Republicans are touting massive spending cuts like in Social Security and Medicare, and tax cuts. That will decrease revenues, raise the debt and cause more inflation. Does that sound smart? It isn’t. It’s the return of trickle-down, where the GOP puts money in the pockets of the corporate and wealthy, and the good will trickle down to the rest of us.
It never does. Trickle-down defies the laws of gravity. It’s called greed.
I prefer “Trickle-up,” like the Democrats’ Student Loan Forgiveness program. That could mean up to $20,000 in debt wiped out. That’s relief. Last week, Republicans stopped it in court.
It doesn’t kill the idea, but if Democrats don’t hold their slim majorities on election day, loan forgiveness will die. As will anything else that will help poor and middle-class people. Even in paradise.
When you live in Hawaii, you are already ahead of the game. Just remember, when you mark your ballot. Don’t pick the Sunaks. Pick the Itliongs.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a veteran journalist and news commentator. A former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in Washington, D.C., in Hawaii, he was on the editorial board of the Advertiser and a columnist for the Star-Bulletin.
by Emil Guillermo