By Leni Reeves
Bold Step is the name of an event that will be held on Sept. 5 and 6 in Delano, hosted by the Filipino American Historical Society, honoring the Filipino roots of the Delano farmworkers strike and the Filipino strikers. It will start at the Filipino Hall, site of thousands of strikers’ meals and hundreds of union meetings. A highlight of the weekend will be a screening of the Emmy-award winning documentary, Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers. New York–based filmmaker Marissa Aroy, whose family roots are in Delano, will be present.
When people think of the farmworkers strike in Delano, the first name that comes to mind is Cesar Chavez, and that is not completely unfair. There had been many attempts to organize in the fields of California, and all of them had been crushed by violence sponsored by the growers and their wholly owned police forces in these company towns with no one from the outside world knowing or caring about it. Chavez’s organizing genius changed that. But the “grape strike” was started and to a great degree carried on and won by a group of Filipino men, mostly old single guys, who had the guts to go out on strike on Sept. 8, 1965, and stay out for five years until the strike was won. Bold step is not a strong enough term to describe this action, but it is a good start.
Two parallel organizing efforts took place in Delano in the early 1960s— the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), an AFL-CIO effort headed by Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz, and the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA), headed by Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The AWOC concentrated mostly on Filipino workers, though Black and Anglo workers were also involved, and was a traditional union-organizing campaign. The NFWA was almost all Mexican-American, Mexican and Chicano workers and families and had a community-organizing basis.
On Sept. 8, the AWOC workers struck the Delano vineyards during picking season. They had negotiated a $1.40/ hour wage in Coachella, but the Delano growers were not going to agree to that. Chavez thought the conditions were not ready for a strike yet, but as the AWOC workers went on strike and stayed out, and the AWOC leadership approached the NFWA for solidarity, there was no other ethical choice. The NFWA went out on strike too on Sept. 16. The organizations merged to become the UFWOC AFL-CIO, the United Farmworkers, or, as we used to say, “The Union.”
Who were these “original strikers,” as they came to be called in the Union? Here is some background. Filipino workers were imported as farm labor, mostly from Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur, starting in the late 1920s. Only men were allowed, and they had to work for years to pay back their fares. Their dreams of making some money and going back home were not ever going to be reality. They lived in labor camps, with lodging and food deducted from their wages, and worked for whatever the growers wanted to pay—when there was work. The minimum wage was never intended to apply to workers of color, so domestic workers and farmworkers were excluded. (If they had been included, minimum wage was $1.25 in 1965.) Few Filipina women immigrants were accepted in the United States during the period when these men came. In California, local authorities applied state anti-miscegenation laws to Filipinos. That is why they were single. That is why they were poor.
One of the defining points in the final contract negotiations in 1970 came when Johnny Giumarra, son of one of the largest growers, said, “We came from immigrant families and we’ve worked hard for what we have,” and Philip Veracruz stood up and in a voice almost choked with emotion said, “We’ve worked even harder for the same length of time, and we have nothing to show for it but the shirts on our backs.” No one could deny that statement or support the essential injustice it revealed.
Therefore, the original strikers came together and formed a kind of family structure. They called each other Brother, meaning Union Brother, but also meaning the only family they would have. Many of them lived together in a labor camp leased by the union and fixed up to be tolerable. The whole union ate together in the Filipino Hall. People donated food and old clothes to the “grape strike.” The union gave each man a bachelor’s allowance of $40/month for all other needs. There was nothing to stop them from going back to work except their solidarity and their sense of what was right. They stuck it out under these conditions for the whole five-year strike.
Here are some of the men I remember:
Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz were the lead organizers of the AWOC and vice-presidents of the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee (UFWOC AFL-CIO) after the unions merged.
Andy Imutan was also an officer of the Union. He was young, and he was married to Luming-Imutan, the only Filipina woman in the Union, as far as I know.
George Ebale did the work of maintaining the Filipino Hall. He had a wicked sense of humor and two German shepherd dogs.
Mariano Santiago maintained the sign-in sheet for meals. He was subtle and kind. When I left the Union in 1973 to attend college, he gave me his typewriter and his pruning shears. I wish I had asked him why he had a typewriter.
Nick Yap organized the storeroom, including all the donations. He gave up a lot to support the strike, for he had been a foreman with a labor camp. He also had a family—somehow he had sneaked under the laws and married an Anglo woman; they had two kids. He was the chief among many of the Filipino workers who extended a fatherly hand to my oldest son.
Celedonio LaCuesta handled all the Union’s mail. I continued to write to some of these Brothers after I left, and he would write me and let me know when someone passed away. When he died, I just got my letter back stamped “deceased.”
Candido Feliciano was the main East Bay organizer; he ran Huelga House in north Oakland. Brother Feliciano was the most self-disciplined person I have ever met.
Pete Velasco was another East Bay boycott worker. Later, he became treasurer of the Union.
Candy Becerra had been a carpenter, in fact, the first non-White master carpenter in the Carpenters Union. He had worked on the Matterhorn in Disneyland, among other jobs. “This hand,” he said, holding up his right, “was a nailing machine.” He and Richard Chavez supervised the construction of the Rodrigo Terronez Clinic and the Agbayani Retirement Village.
Isidro Taay irrigated and worked on the 40 Acres garden. He took my son on the tractor and showed him (at age four) how to manage water with a shovel.
Tony Armington worked in the kitchen. With one or two helpers, he produced food for everybody in the union, every day.
Danny was a guard for Larry Itliong. He played guitar, was part of the jazz group that met in the back of the Filipino barbershop. I was gently kicked out of this group for not knowing enough chords; at the time, I thought they were wrong, but they were not.
Julian Balidoy was a friend of Pete’s.
Joseph Reeves was a guard for Chavez. He was younger than the other people and had been a merchant seaman who came to Delano during a period when jobs were scarce, then got caught up in the organizing and the strike. He knew about unions from the National Maritime Union and became one of the original strikers. (Reader, I married him.)
“The Visayan” was a night guard at the Filipino Hall. He spent part of his $10/week income on food for the 10 or 12 cats that came around at night and sat in an orderly attentive circle around him. I am sorry I forgot your name, Brother, and I am sorry too that I have forgotten many other people over all these years.
It is not too late to honor them and pay attention to their crucial role in starting and maintaining the first successful farmworkers union and the first strike that not only won but also brought national attention to Delano and the farmworkers’ struggle. Bold Step will occur in Delano on Sept. 5 and 6. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ FANHSDelano.
Leni Villagomez Reeves is a physician and activist who worked for the Farmworkers Union UFWOC from 1967 to 1973 on the boycott and in Delano. She entered university in 1973 as a direct result of her experiences and contacts in the union and remains eternally grateful for this. Contact her at email@example.com.