When you think of the Delano Grape Strike, who are the key figures who immediately come to mind?
Largely missing from history and school textbooks is the name of the Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American farm worker and labor organizer, who led the strike along with a group of fellow Fil-Am workers like Philip Vera Cruz, Pete Velasco and Benjamin Gines.
Itliong, who was hired to organize workers for the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), later asked Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to join the strike. The unions banded together to form the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Chavez as director and Itliong as assistant director.
Decades later, there have been posthumous recognitions of Itliong’s legacy, like Assembly Bill 7 authored by California Assemblymember Rob Bonta to recognize October 25 as “Larry Itliong Day,” Assembly Bill 123 in 2013 that requires the state curriculum to include the contributions of Fil-Ams to the farm labor movement, and the renaming of Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School in Union City.
To further push for awareness of Itliong’s contributions, a three-day excursion is planned this weekend, Feb. 8-10, in Delano to kick off the national book tour of “Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong,” by Dawn Mabalon, Ph.D, with Gayle Romasanta and illustrated by Andrew Sibayan. Released in October 2018, it is the first-ever book about Itliong and the first Filipino-American non-fiction children’s book.
This weekend also marks the death anniversary of Itliong, who passed away on Feb. 8, 1977 from ALS, and the six-month death anniversary of Mabalon, who passed away in August 2018.
“BORN in a small village to poor farmers, Larry, a boy without money or power, but with big dreams, helped to change the world by fighting for justice. He spent his life helping poor people and workers, led the Great Delano Grape Strike, and became a leader in the farmworkers movement, one of the greatest social movements in American history. Like his name implies, Modesto Dulay “Larry” Itliong was a modest man, but he was a force who believed deep in his heart that all people should have justice, and he was so passionate that he dedicated every day of his life to this dream.” —Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong (page 40).
The events featured include a book talk with Romasanta, historical tour of Delano, screening of Marissa Aroy’s “Delano Manongs,” panel with living manongs, and memorial service for Mabalon.
It is the “homecoming” that Mabalon anticipated for the book, Romasanta says.
“Journey for Justice” was published under Romasanta’s Bridge + Delta Publishing house, which she started to tell immigrant stories “without ever needing someone else’s permission,” she tells the Asian Journal.
The book was recently launched in Los Angeles at the Park’s Finest, one of Mabalon’s favorite restaurants and where she wanted to do a book signing.
“My grandfather and his brother and six cousins came to the United States in the 1930s and they all eventually bought a farm together,” Romasanta shares. “I was raised there…then my family moved to Little Manila in Stockton. Growing up, we would have to cross three bridges to get to the farm in Brentwood from Stockton and it was right next to the Delta. So Bridge + Delta.”
A few years ago, Romasanta — who has has been a writer and editor for over two decades and authored the English/Tagalog children’s book “Beautiful Eyes” (2012) — reached out to long-time friend Mabalon after noticing the lack of children’s books about Filipino-American historical figures.
“I called [Dawn] up because I have kids who would have assignments to pick a famous person to do a report on and there were no Filipino American…children’s books about our heroes,” Romasanta recounts. “There were books that talked about the culture in a textbook style but no one really went into the heart and soul of Filipino America.”
Mabalon — a descendant of farmworkers and teachers who was born and raised in Stockton — was a history professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Little Manila Rising in Stockton. She and Romasanta came together to write a children’s book about Itliong, beginning from his migration from the Philippines to the United States and how he contributed to one of the largest social movements in U.S. history.
The information is based on years of research Mabalon accumulated for the planned biography on the labor leader’s life.
“Dawn very much wanted it to be aligned with her research. When you think about a children’s book and a history book, you think that someone’s just read it and it’s basically regurgitated information,” Romasanta says. “Once you read the book, she had tons of information in there…from public documents, letters, and meeting notes she pieced together, and from recordings and interviews that Larry Itliong did.”
“Journey for Justice” is the result after two years and nearly 30 drafts because of Mabalon being “meticulous.” Sibayan took about six months to illustrate the drawings on each page.
“This is a work of art for Dawn because it is her quilt — putting together Larry’s story that no one’s ever done better,” Romasanta says.
In 2017, Bridge + Delta launched an Indiegogo campaign for $35,000 to help cover the production costs for publishing the book. One of the tiers was $250 to donate 32 copies of the book to a class. The campaign ended up raising $40,892.
The book ends with suggestions on how people can carry on Itliong’s work, such as students writing reports about him and encouraging people to vote and be civically engaged.
“I would love it if our students and community would know Larry’s name as much as we know Cesar Chavez’s name. This is the first book about Larry Itliong but it should not be the last,” Romasanta says, adding that Itliong’s story is a greater lesson on the history of union organizing in the United States.
The book is slated to be taught in Fil-Am studies classes at UCLA, University of Michigan, San Francisco State University, Bakersfield College — Delano campus, and eventually UC Davis. Other school districts, like Delano Union School District and San Francisco Unified School District through Pin@y Educational Partnerships, will be adding it to their curriculum as well.
Pin@y Educational Partnerships has developed a free teacher’s guide to accompany the book, SFSU professor Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales revealed.
“We’ve got to teach this history of the unions, of people demanding for their dignity, safety in the workplace for farmworkers, and also for wherever the reader is at the moment, fighting for their communities needs,” Romasanta says. “That means eating, drinking, and working in a safe environment that gives access and respect to its workers and a living wage.”
“Journey for Justice” is just the beginning for Bridge + Delta, Romasanta says, as she pushed for a series of eight children’s books on Filipino-American history.
“I wanted to do eight books but Dawn wanted to do four. The first four are going to be Dawn’s series,” she says.
The subsequent books will be about “America Is in the Heart” author Carlos Bulosan and Olympic gold medalist Vicki Manalo Draves.
As for the fourth book? “We didn’t who the other woman that we were going to write about and now it’s just very clear that it’s going to be Dawn Mabalon,” Romasanta reveals.
Mabalon’s story will be written by Tintiangco-Cubales and illustrated by Ricky Nierva, who worked on a handful of Pixar movies like “Up,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Inside Out.”
“For a lot of immigrants, they’re almost home here in the United States. But there’s something missing and I hope Bridge + Delta can be that missing connection where they see themselves,” Romasanta says, adding that she intends to share stories that are relevant to Filipino Americans and other immigrant groups as well. “You can see yourselves in these stories because someone has given a voice to your stories and your history here and has acknowledged the deep struggle that it took to get here as an immigrant and demand for your dignity.”
After Delano, book talk events are planned in Seattle, WA; Wapato, WA; New York; Washington DC; Virginia Beach, VA; Honolulu, HI; Anchorage, AK; Southfield, MI; Milwaukee, WI; Chicago, IL; San Diego, CA; Houston, TX; Stockton, CA; and the Bay Area. Other cities will be announced on https://www.bridgedelta.com.