Today, grapes in the grocery store don’t seem that controversial. But 50 years ago, a historic strike in California’s Central Valley vineyards set in motion the most significant campaign in modern labor history: the farmworker movement.
While the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez are widely known for running the Delano Grape Strike and prompting an international boycott of table grapes, the origins of that movement are rarely discussed. Some people in the town of Delano and across the state are determined to change that.
It would be easy to drive through Delano and have no idea that history was made here. It’s a dry, hot Central Valley town, and places of historical importance — such as a retirement home, a church, and acres and acres of farmland — look ordinary on the outside.
For many people, though, these places are sacred ground: the vineyards, picketed for years by farmworkers and their supporters; the high school auditorium where Sen. Bobby Kennedy spoke; a white stucco building on the edge of town where Cesar Chavez carried out a hunger strike and became a national symbol of farmworker rights; and a utilitarian community center known as Filipino Hall.
To resident Roger Gadiano, Filipino Hall is a shrine. “This is our Mecca,” he says. “I guess it’s our Selma. This is it!” Because in this building, on the night of Sept. 7, 1965, farmworkers voted to go on strike the next day. They were almost all Filipino.
“People don’t know who in the heck walked in here … but I do.” Gadiano says. “It tickles me. We’re a part of a big history. We took a step that was bold and that no one else would take.”
Most of those voting — and striking — were elders called Manongs, the mostly migrant, bachelor Filipino farmworkers whose names and stories few people know, even in Delano.
During Philippine Weekend, a cultural celebration and kind of family reunion, a group of young women say they never learned about the farmworker movement in school. Angelica Perez says her Latina grandmother and other relatives actually participated in the strike and ensuing boycott, “So it was active family history, but it was not taught — or talked about — at all.”
Even though she’s in her late 20s, Melanie Retuda says she learned about the Filipino origins of the strike only last year. “I’d known of Cesar Chavez and Hispanics being involved,” she says. “Being Filipino, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Filipinos actually made an impact in the process. It makes me proud that they were involved.”
Perez is outraged that this history is not known because the actions those Filipinos took improved her family’s lives. “I mean, I’m extremely proud that Cesar Chavez was the right face at the right time, but a lot of the dirty work was already done.”
In many ways, Filipino farmworkers and labor organizers had prepared for the Delano Grape Strike for decades. Dawn Mabalon, professor of history at San Francisco State University, says they’d been fighting for better working conditions since the 1920s, and had a key win in 1939 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“Five to seven thousand Filipinos in asparagus fields all walk out at the height of the season, on Good Friday,” threatening the availability of asparagus on Easter dinner tables, Mabalon says. “Growers capitulated in a day. So Filipinos know that if they all walk out, in absolute unity, with absolute militancy, they’re probably going to win.”
By the ’60s, though, conditions for farmworkers across the state were still dismal. Mabalon describes conducting oral histories in which she heard stories of field crews sharing just one tin cup of water. “You still had no bathrooms in the fields, poor wages, no workers’ comp, no unemployment, no Social Security,” she says.
So, in the summer of 1965, when growers cut the pay of Filipinos picking grapes in the Coachella Valley, they were prepared to act. These workers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, were “led by this really charismatic, seasoned, militant labor leader, Larry Itliong,” Mabalon says, “and they make a stand against the farmers in Coachella and they win: $1.40 an hour.”
When they migrated north to Delano, organizers like Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco urged local families to join them in asking for improved conditions (the same raise to $1.40 an hour). Growers balked.
Retired journalist Alex Edillor was only 11 years old, but he remembers his farmworker parents coming back from heated meetings, and talking about a potential strike over the kitchen table. “There were people with mortgages, with families to feed, considering a strike action,” he says.
On the evening of Sept. 7, workers gathered at Filipino Hall and voted to strike. The next morning they went out to the vineyards, as they always did, but made a dramatic stand. Edillor remembers: “It was the first day of school, I was all prepared to come home, watch a little TV,” but when he came home, his parents were there. Like the Manongs, and other locals, they’d worked a full day, then left the harvested crop on the ground and walked off the vineyard.
Gadiano, who had family members join the strike, adds, “Just imagine over 1,500 old Filipino men at different labor camps, different vineyards, all walking out at same time. How awesome is that!”
It was Gadiano’s first day of his senior year of high school. He remembers walking into his Spanish II class, and being approached by a grower’s son. “‘Hey Rog, your Uncle Max just went on strike.’ I went, ‘He did? They just want a raise.’ ”
Workers got kicked out of labor camps. Gadiano says, “The farmers were going to use the Mexicans to break the strike.”
Cesar Chavez and others, like Dolores Huerta and Gil Padilla, had been organizing Mexican workers around Delano for a few years through the National Farm Workers Association, but a strike wasn’t in their immediate plans. So Larry Itliong appealed to Chavez, and two weeks later, the much more sizable group of Mexican workers joined the strike. Soon, the two unions came together to form what would become United Farm Workers, with Larry Itliong assistant director under Chavez. It was a historic interracial union.
“These two groups that had been kept apart for so long, coming together, that is the power in the Delano Grape Strike,” says historian Mabalon.
Mexicans and Filipinos gathered at Filipino Hall, eating fishhead soup and preparing strikers’ meals, organizing, even sleeping there. Gadiano passed by every day on his way to high school and saw the steps filled with picket signs.
“They’d eat breakfast and pick up their signs and go to a field location and picket,” he remembers. It took five years of striking, plus an international boycott of table grapes, before growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers.
Those years weren’t easy on strikers, families or Delano.
Gadiano shows me around the grocery store his dad once owned. As the only supplier of Filipino goods in the region, it was popular with townspeople and labor camps, where the family delivered fish, meat and other goods.
“A common order was a 100-pound sack of Calrose rice, sticky rice,” Gadiano remembers.
His dad also helped out families of striking workers.
“We were giving them credit to pay us back when work started. We carried hundreds of families. We were stuck in the middle because we had the store.”
Many families were like Alex Edillor’s: his parents walked off the fields initially, but after a few weeks they felt they had to return to work. He remembers the tension, even in places like church.
“It was kind of split down the middle of the church: This is where the strikers went, this is where the people who went back to work went,” he says. “There was a strange division among us.”
Now, though, people who sat on either side of the aisle join in wanting to share this history. “We came back together because, looking back on it, we were very proud of that moment,” Edillor says.
Mabalon says, growing up not knowing this history, she and her peers feel the hurt of a generation. “It’s our story, and it demands our love and attention and respect, and we need to tell this story.”
That’s happening more and more. Mabalon is writing a biography of Larry Itliong; Edillor and Gadiano have organized a celebration in Delano over Labor Day weekend; and a documentary on the Manongs came out last year.
Recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two pieces of legislation, one recognizing Larry Itliong Day, the other requiring public schools to teach this history. Rob Bonta, the state’s only Filipino-American Assembly member, introduced those bills. Although his parents were farm labor organizers and he grew up in UFW headquarters, he says, “When I cracked the history books in high school and college, I didn’t see those stories being told.”
In Delano, Gadiano ends a tour of the town at one last, ordinary place: Larry Itliong’s simple gravesite. The headstone says only, “Beloved husband and father.”
“He gave our people some dignity,” Gadiano says. “He gave his guts.”