California’s forgotten Filipinos and the struggle for farm worker rights

In “The forgotten Filipino-Americans who led the ’65 Delano grape strike,” Lisa Morehouse uncovers the history of Filipino grape pickers in the fight for farmworker rights.

Fifty years ago, Cesar Chavez became the face of the movement as farm laborers lobbied for fair wages and humane treatment. But as Morehouse reveals, it was a brave community of Filipinos in Delano, California, who actually led the charge. On September 7, 1965, they were the first to vote for a strike against vineyard owners, compelling Chavez’ Mexican followers to join them in the formation of the United Farm Workers.

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It would be easy to drive through Delano and have no idea that history was made here,” writes Morehouse. But long before Cesar Chavez began his hunger strike, Filipino laborers in the community had spent decades lobbying for change on farms.

Despite their efforts, by the 1960s there were still no bathrooms in the fields; wages remained abysmal, and workers compensation and unemployment were unheard of. Field crews might share one cup for water among them, Dawn Mabalon, a professor of history at San Francisco State University told Morehouse.

Desperate for improvement, Filipino workers pledged not to work another day until vineyard owners heeded their demands. The owners tried to break the strike by hiring Mexican laborers, but Filipino leaders were able to convince Chavez to join them. “We’re a part of a big history,” Roger Gadiano, a Delano resident, says in the article. “We took a step that was bold and that no one else would take.”

Some in Delano, like Angelica Perez, whose Latina grandmother and other relatives were part of the strike and eventual boycott, are angered that the Filipino role has been forgotten. “It was active family history, but it was not taught — or talked about — at all,” she told Morehouse. “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.”