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Filipino History? Ethnic Studies? Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

We’re heading into the last week and winding up Filipino American History Month.

That’s right, you had a whole month of October to send me my “Happy Filipino American History Month” card.

Bet you didn’t even know it was happening.

And just as we come off the first Larry Itliong Day celebrated statewide in California Oct. 25, what would have been Itliong’s 102nd birthday.

If you don’t know who Itliong is, well, I guess that’s the point, as well.

You know Cesar Chavez, I bet. But not Itliong?

Now a typical hole in the knowledge of educated men and women.

It’s usually called ignorance, but that’s the general term for all the holes.

Itliong is just one tiny hole. We all know too many holes exist.

Not many know Itliong, nor Filipino American history, in general.

That’s even though it’s an important part of U.S. history, considering the Philippines was the first U.S. colony.

Part of Itliong’s story was my father’s story.

My dad came to San Francisco as an American national in 1928. Itliong came a year later, as a 16-year-old with a sixth-grade education. The boats were full of Filipinos, but with more men compared to women, by about 10 to 1.
Why? Well, you wouldn’t want these monkeys to procreate on American soil and start families in our country, would you? Monkey? That was the epithet for Filipinos. It was also the plan: To see them as animals. To keep them from planting roots in America. To keep them as a large source of cheap service labor in America. Drivers, houseboys, hotels, cooks.

My father thought he was smart. He stayed in San Francisco to work in the city’s restaurant and hotels. The shoulder-padded suits, topcoats and fedoras they liked to wear just seemed to fit better in the city. But most were like Itliong, who went to work in the fields of the Central Valley. A severe backlash resulted from White males. They didn’t care about the jobs the Filipinos took. They were concerned that the Filipinos wanted their White women. It fostered a palpable sexual tension that expressed itself in beatings of Filipinos on the streets and in the fields. There were also the infamous riots in Watsonville and the murder of Fermin Tobera. Other murders and lynchings were reported in Stockton.

Years later, I found myself working for a newspaper in the area, the first draft of history, which in the ’30s printed horribly racist, anti-Filipino editorials pandering to its angry White audience. Filipinos were declared “unassimilable.”
The strong “ethnic purity” sentiment brought on new laws. In 1934, Filipinos’ status went from American nationals to Filipino aliens. Other laws limited property ownership. But the most damning were the laws against intermarriage, the anti-miscegenation laws.
Filipinos who loved to mix had to stop mixing. With few Filipino women, the bachelor society was locked into place. Alone, together.

There’s more to the history. But only in a few places will you find it taught.

But that’s not why Larry Itliong should have a day all his own.

There’s more.

By 1930, as a migrant worker in the fields, he began to organize Filipino workers who were working menial jobs for pennies.

By 1965, Itliong was head of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.

That was the year of the historic Delano Grape Strike of 1965.

But who gets the credit for the strike?

Not Itliong, but Cesar Chavez.

History, however, will show, it was Itliong, not Chavez who led the way.

When the growers refused to honor the union’s demand for wages of $1.40 an hour, the Filipinos led the strike on Day One ― Sept. 8, 1965.

Gilbert Padilla, who was co-founder with Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), said that it was the first time Chavez had heard of the strike. At a Labor Day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Grape Strike in Delano last month, Padilla said the NFWA was just an organization of workers and not a real union at the time. But when Itliong realized the Filipinos needed the Mexican workers to defeat the growers, Padilla said Itliong’s insistence persuaded the NFWA to merge with the AWOC.

By Sept. 16, the NFWA took a strike vote and the farmworkers were united.

With more workers migrating from Mexico, Chavez became leader of the United Farm Workers. Itliong was his second in command. But it set the stage for Itliong to be eclipsed, mostly by history.

But what did he do? Concurrent to the great civil rights movement across the land, a Filipino American realized unifying with Latinos in solidarity was the only way to win. Itliong’s vision was the start of the civil rights of people of color in the fields.

It was solidarity at the base level, among those who worked the soil fronts of America, where the historic inequality has always been rooted.

Itliong started it. With Chavez, together, they acted to root it out in what has become the largest and most diverse state in the union.

Something worth knowing?

Recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed AB-101, the so-called Ethnic Studies Bill.

He called it redundant and said there were already things in place. There are ethnic studies programs sure, but a comprehensive program moving toward recognizing these programs are legitimate, rigorous, programs of study are needed.

It ain’t basket weaving.

Ironically, Brown this year signed AB-7, the bill honoring Itliong in public schools.

So I know he values the knowledge.

But AB-101 could have helped fill in all the holes in the general ignorance.

Not just the Itliong hole.

Emil Guillermo, 2015 winner of the Asian American Journalists Association’s Ahn Award for civil rights and social justice journalism, writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blog. Please visit,

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