Sunday, October 25, 2015

It Does Matter

"I’m a mean son-of-a-bitch in terms of my direction
fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country."


This is not just a story about Larry Itliong or Assemblymember Rob Bonta. There have been many stories written about Larry Itliong lately, as Bonta successfully established today, October 25, as Larry Itliong Day in California. Bonta chose to honor Itliong because he felt that he lacked the recognition that he truly deserves, and that is absolutely true. Following that lead, this story is about the mother who is the link between these two men, because she deserves recognition for her role too.

Filipinos first set foot in California as far back as October 18, 1587, when the Spanish galleon Nuestra SeƱora de Esperanza sent a landing party ashore in Morro Bay. Throughout the Manila Galleon trade, Filipino conscripts would settle up and down the west coast after surviving the torturous trip across the Pacific.

However, the foundations for today’s Filipino American community were laid over the course of four main waves of immigration: the upper class Pensionados of the 1900s; the working class Manongs of the 10s, 20s and 30s; the War Brides of the late 40s and 50s; and the professional Brain Drain of the late 60s and 70s. Now, over 500 years later, Filipinos are the largest and fastest-growing Asian Pacific Islander population in California. In fact, half of all Filipinos in the US reside in California.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta has passed two important pieces of legislation that require the State of California to officially recognize the important contributions of Filipino immigrants. In his first year in office, the first and only Filipino American to be elected into the California State Legislature successfully passed his first attempt at legislation. AB 123 mandates that social science curriculums in the state provide students with a more complete account of the history of the state’s farm labor movement by recognizing the pivotal role of Filipino workers and labor leaders. Two years later, for the first piece of legislation of his second term in office, Bonta successfully passed a law that mandates an annual tribute to one of those labor leaders on their birthday. AB 7, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown over the summer, officially proclaims October 25 as Larry Itliong Day.

Larry Dulay "Seven Fingers" Itliong was a long-time migrant worker and militant labor organizer who fearlessly organized the historic Delano grape strike and negotiated the partnership between his Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) that created the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), the first ever agricultural workers union.

In addition to representing the politically conscious and labor-friendly East Bay Area, Bonta also has a personal attachment to the struggle for farm worker rights. Born in the Philippines, he came to the United States with his family when he was barely two months old. When his parents moved to La Paz, the headquarters of the UFW, he lived in a trailer about 100 yards away from the home of Union President and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez. Bonta’s godfather was Chavez’ Executive Assistant, Jose Gomez.

Growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, Bonta was raised by two activist parents. His birthday falls on the anniversary of Proclamation 1081, the edict issued by then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to justify Martial Law and the extension of his reign as Dictator for an additional 15 years. Bonta’s mother, Cynthia, was an active member of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Pilipinos, or KDP), so in addition to spending the first few years of his life in the headquarters of the UFW, Rob’s birthday always involved a protest of some sort.

As a history major at Yale University, the young man who had witnessed some of the greatest moments in both Filipino American and California state history found a passion for "giving voice to silences in history." After a successful legal career and two successful electoral campaigns, Bonta has now proven his commitment to doing just that, and he has chosen a very critical silence to give a voice to. With regards to the pioneering Manong labor organizers, Bonta says, "They started something great, one of the greatest movements in the history of the world." Itliong and his crew absolutely deserve recognition for their contributions to a California agricultural industry which now boasts $100 billion in annual economic activity, and that recognition is finally starting to happen half a century later.

The City of Carson and the County of Los Angeles both proclaimed Larry Itliong Days back in 2010, and several other notable honors followed in the wake of Bonta’s AB 123 legislation in 2013. Alvarado Middle School in Union City has been renamed Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School for Larry and his organizing buddy Philip Vera Cruz, becoming the first school in the nation to be named after Filipino Americans. Also, the Pilipino Workers Center and the Little Tokyo Service Center opened the Larry Itliong Village, a community space with 45 units of affordable housing, in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.

You could dismiss the significance of AB 7 as meaningless lip service pandering only to a portion of the second-fastest growing constituency in the state. However, it is much more significant than that. It’s actually a huge tribute to a heroic figure who is truly deserving of heroic status not just because of what he accomplished, but also because of how he went about accomplishing it.

Itliong’s only speeches were aimed solely at the farm workers themselves, often in their own dialects. He was not trying to be a great orator for the masses. He was not interested in titles or status. He was not interested in writing books or having books written about him, having movies made about him, buildings named after him, having his face on t-shirts, or even having a day devoted to him. He was simply a man who cared deeply about his fellow migrant Filipino brothers, and he was committed to fighting for justice for all laborers. These traits are why he is a great hero deserving recognition and also why he has lacked the recognition that he truly deserves. Just because recognition didn't matter to him doesn't mean that it doesn't matter.

To understand why recognizing Larry Itliong was so important to Assemblymember Bonta, you need to look beyond the smooth, shiny surface and see past the articulate Ivy League trial lawyer. If you can do that, then you will find an incredible story that begins on the same island that Itliong himself came from.

Cynthia Arnaldo, who had grown up in the province of Laguna on the Island of Luzon in the Northern Philippines, was the National Director of Youth Work for the United Church of Christ when she was sent to the United States on a full ride ecumenical scholarship to study at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. Like the Filipino conscripts on the Spanish Galleons four centuries earlier, she crossed the Pacific on a boat. It was July 1965, the same summer that Larry Itliong and his crew were going door-to-door and field-to-field, relentlessly organizing grape pickers in the Delano heat. The Bay Area, a five-hour drive northwest of Delano, was not nearly as hot, especially to someone from the Philippines.

It was also just one month removed from the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, and she soon met Warren Bonta, a fellow PSR student who was a budding young civil rights activist. They were both members of the Social Concerns Committee at the school, and she learned about the wide variety of social movements that were coming into being at that pivotal point in history. During winter break, she and Warren traveled to his hometown of Moorpark in Southern California, and on the way, they stopped in Delano to volunteer at the Filipino Community Hall. While there, they got the chance to hear Larry Itliong speak to a packed crowd. He gave his speech in Ilocano, which wasn't his own native dialect, and they were both in awe of his command of the audience.

Cynthia and Warren eventually got married, and when both had finished school, they went to the Philippines as missionaries. They had a daughter, Lisa, and lived in a missionary house near the US Embassy in Manila. While Warren had experience as a civil rights activist in the Southern US during the era when lynchings were still popular community events, Cynthia’s political consciousness was still limited to Liberation Theology and was only just beginning to awaken. However, during the First Quarter Storm in 1970, the young family frequently witnessed first-hand a fed up citizenry willing to risk their lives to be heard going head-to-head against an out-of-control government seeking to silence its citizens by any means necessary. This was the reality that Rob Bonta was conceived in and born into.

In 1971, the Bonta family relocated to Los Angeles, closer to Warren’s roots. He was now an ordained Minister in the United Methodist Church, and was assigned to the Migrant Ministry of the National Council of Churches. That’s how they got involved with the UFW. They were both on the payroll of the National Council of Churches, but their job was to "volunteer" with the UFW to help organize boycott drives in LA. Paid only survival wages that covered food and rent, the young couple made do despite the fact that they had two young children.

Larry Itliong had just left the UFW, but Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco remained in the organization. Itliong continued his tireless organizing efforts elsewhere, even leaving the country to organize workers in Latin America at one point. One of his main projects was working towards building a retirement facility for his fellow Manongs, most of whom had no family other than each other.

The UFW moved their headquarters from 40 Acres Hall in Delano to a scenic former sanitarium at Nuestro Senora Reina de La Paz (Keene, CA) in the Tehachapi mountains to the East. Warren was transferred to La Paz, from where he was tasked with opening up UFW health clinics throughout the Imperial Valley. Cynthia, now pregnant with the couple’s third child, Marc, juggled communal childcare duties and staffing Warren’s office while he was out at the various clinic sites. She recalls once being ordered by Cesar Chavez himself to cook dinner for the Union leadership because they craved Filipino food, and she was the only Filipina on the staff. "I didn’t really know how to cook that well," she admits, but everyone else helped out and the dinner was a success.

Another duty she had was to go out into the fields to call out scab workers. This was in 1973, after the initial labor contracts with the grape growers expired. While there was a general feeling of safety and security in La Paz (Chavez had armed security), that was not the case on the farms. There were strict rules on where you could be, and where you couldn’t be, and the farmers had armed guards who not only enforced those rules, but also made sure that everyone knew that they were out there enforcing those rules. Such were the tensions in the farm industry in those times, which underscores the significance of a simultaneous strike and boycott. Despite the relative safety in La Paz, Cynthia says, "We were always on the lookout for strange people."

When Jerry Brown became Governor in 1975 (yes, the same Governor Jerry Brown who just signed both AB 123 and AB 7 into law), the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed, which guaranteed California farm workers the right to organize, vote in state-supervised secret-ballot elections and bargain with their employers. To celebrate and educate farm workers about this humongous victory, Chavez led a 1,000+ mile, two-month long march from the Mexican border up the coast to Salinas, over to Sacramento, and then back down through the Central Valley.

The Bonta family, all five of them, met the marchers outside of Sacramento and crossed the Yolo causeway en route to the victory party at the State Capitol. It was the family’s first visit to the city where they would settle down in two years later, and Rob’s first visit to the building where he has worked for the past 3 years. Although known as the "City of Trees," Cynthia remembers thinking that there weren’t enough trees, and it was even hotter than Kern County.

The Bonta family left La Paz shortly after that and moved back to Berkeley. The UFW health clinics had all been set up, their oldest child was ready for grade school, and they wanted to return to the region where they had first met a decade earlier. Cynthia did multicultural curriculum development work for the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco Unified School Districts.

It was at this point that she got involved with the KDP. She attended an event at United Methodist Church in Berkeley aimed at raising awareness about political prisoners in the Philippines, and when she heard stories about some of her former colleagues from her days working for the United Church of Christ, the Anti-Marcos struggle became a personal issue for her.

After two years in the Bay Area, the family relocated to Sacramento. Warren worked for the State, and Cynthia worked as a Multicultural Resource Specialist for the Folsom/Cordova Unified School District. She later worked for the Sacramento Unified School District, and the State as well. Her first job with the State was as an Office Assistant, and she viewed it as simply a day job that allowed her to focus more on being a mother and her community work with the KDP.

After a year in State service though, she got a job as a Civil Rights Coordinator with the Department of Health Services, enforcing the Department’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act. She also helped build the annual Philippine National Day event, and then the subsequent non-profit organization Philippine National Day Association (PNDA) as well. On the board of PNDA, Cynthia built the Outstanding Filipino Youth Awards (OFYA) and the Filipino American Youth Leadership Conference (FAYLC) programs.

Despite moving back to the Bay Area in 2003 to spend more time with her grandchildren (Rob and Lisa have both settled in the East Bay), Cynthia remained active with PNDA in Sacramento. Several times a week, she crosses the same Yolo causeway that she first marched across with the UFW four decades ago.

"Larry Itliong, the warrior, more than any other, is the heroic figure of the Grape Strike which paved the way for the most telling farm workers movement, ever, in this country. At a pivotal and critical historic moment, knowing that it would be personally costly, he made the necessary decision to save a worthy cause. By subordinating himself he helped make possible the dream of every farm worker come true."

This year, she is the outgoing President of PNDA, and organized a commemoration of the Delano Grape Strike to celebrate its 50th Anniversary during the local Filipino Fiesta. She was even able to convince NFWA co-founder and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta to attend and be honored, which was an amazing feat considering the controversy that still surrounds the way the older Filipino workers were treated by the UFW. Not wanting to take credit for the feat, she claims that Dolores agreed to attend because she truly believed that the real significance of the successful Grape Strike was the genuine solidarity felt between the Filipino and Mexican workers, despite whatever may have been happening amongst the leadership.

What was going on with the leadership was some tension related to Chavez’s hesitancy to delegate authority. To be fair to Chavez though, Itliong and his crew really buttered him up while trying to convince him to join their strike, which he believed the NFWA was still a few years away from being ready to truly support. As the Filipino workers were older and closer to retirement (not to mention the fact that they had just won a strike against the same growers down in the Coachella Valley), they felt that the time was now, and resorted to whatever means they could to recruit Chavez and his large following. Feeding his ego was definitely one of their strategies. In fact, even though none of them owned a barong, they somehow managed to give one to Chavez as a gift, which he wore as he signed the UFWOC partnership deal. This was the first ever unification of Mexican and Filipino workers, the two groups that growers had been playing against each other in order to keep wages low.

Itliong caught a lot of flack for not seeking to be the Director of the new union, but he was never concerned with what would happen after the strike succeeded. He just wanted to win the strike and improve the lives of farm workers, and he knew he needed Chavez for that. His response to calls for him to be in charge of the union was always, "Hindi na bale" (It doesn’t matter who is in charge). When he left the UFW, this fearless, militant veteran of the west coast labor wars justified his not making a fuss within the historic union by remarking simply, "It’s bigger than me."

Cynthia is currently working on the PNDA’s 25th Anniversary Gala event as she transitions from the Board of Directors to the Advisory Board, and has recently established the Larry Itliong Warrior Award.

Of her work with the KDP and PNDA, she says that it made her the mother that she is because it allowed her to model to her children what it looked like to strive to be the best person that she could be. "I just wanted my children to be contributing members of society," she says.

As for being a grandmother now, the retiree says, "It’s like having two full-time jobs." However, she says that grandparenting is very relaxing, and a great complement to her work as PNDA President.

When she thinks back about the course that her life has taken since her fateful first trip to the US in 1965, she says, "I think this must have been divine intervention or something." Considering the funding source of that trip, it definitely was.

A week before the first ever Larry Itliong Day in California, Assemblymember Bonta hosted an event in Oakland to commemorate Larry and all of the pioneering Manongs. He talked about his passion for history, and really drove home the enormity of the struggle that the Manongs undertook. Proving that he may very well be cut from similar cloth, Bonta promised to work hard to ensure that he would not be the last Filipino American elected to the California State Legislature.

Larry’s son, Johnny Itliong, attended, and Bonta presented him with a signed and framed copy of AB 7. The younger Itliong spoke briefly, telling how his father had often spoke of fighting "the good fight," and he said that he carries on that tradition for his kids. He wore red nail polish to bring attention to the abuse of children, and noted that there is still abuse of women ‘out in the fields’ that needs to be addressed as well.

Larry Itliong spent well over 4 decades following the crop cycles up and down the west coast, but today, on what would have been his 102nd birthday, he finally has his moment in the California sun. "It was a huge step getting my father on the books. I could not be more proud."