IN the last 32 years, community leader Johnny Itliong has attended nearly 400 events to spread awareness about the role his father and the Delano manongs played in the eventual creation of the United Farm Workers (UFW).
“My big picture goal is to get everybody educated about how a group of people can get together regardless of their background, set their differences aside, get rid of political correctness…and treat everybody as people. And really to have our rights as a person to be recognized by each other and share that with each other,” Itliong said.
It is Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez who is most often associated with the founding of the UFW. But the contributions of Itliong’s father, Larry Itliong, have long been ignored. On Sept. 8, 1965, Larry led about 1,500 farmers in what marked the beginning of the Delano Grape Strike.
A victory came earlier this year when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation, AB 7, that designated October 25 as Larry Itliong Day, the day Larry was born in 1913. Itliong says it is one of the top three strides that have come about since he committed himself to informing the public of his father’s legacy more than 30 years ago.
Awareness of Larry Itliong’s part in the story of the UFW has been on the rise in recent years. In 2010, the City of Carson became the first in the United States to issue a proclamation dedicating a day to Larry Itliong, with Los Angeles County doing the same shortly afterward.
This year alone, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and San Jose City Council issued proclamations declaring Larry Itliong Day on Oct. 25. The City of Milpitas recognized Filipino American History Month, and the work Larry and the Delano manongs did in the same resolution. Solano County was another body that recognized the day.
Much has been accomplished this year, but Itliong has no plans to stop telling people the story of his father.
“Just because a couple of places recognize it, the state recognizes it, doesn’t mean everybody knows. And even here in California, even Filipinos. And if they do [know about it], who’s telling [them] what it is? What information are they getting? Because there’s a lot of wrong information out there,” Itliong said.
Along with the several resolutions passed by various counties and cities, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike. A successful celebration in September this year is another one of Itliong’s top three moments in his ongoing journey to educate the nation about Larry’s legacy.
Last weekend, Itliong participated in events in Los Angeles County commemorating Filipino American History Month and his father. On Oct. 23, he was recognized at Los Angeles City Hall, where he said in an emotional address that Larry deserves more than to be ignored for half a century; on Oct. 24, he tabled at Carson’s Larry Itliong Day celebration with informational booths and photos on display to educate visitors; on Oct. 25, he was among panel members who discussed the significance of the Delano Manongs after a screening of a documentary called “The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers” at the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) headquarters.
During a Q&A session with the panel at SIPA, Itliong shared that he has encountered opposition, specifically citing an instance at a university campus where one student yelled at him, “That’s not the Cesar I knew!”
“I told him, Cesar was a dictator with the UFW. It was his way or no way…. And I witnessed that as a child. I asked [the student], ‘Did you sit on Cesar’s lap as a child? Did he change your diapers? Did Helen [Chavez’s wife] change your diapers?’ [I loved Cesar] and I called him Tio and I called [Helen] Tia. They were family. And it hurts and it hurt the Itliong family to have to see this through years and years. Fifty years, finally, to get this out and tell the story. And it’s not my fault but that’s what they did…I’m going to sit here and correct it. I want to set the record straight,” Itliong said.
He added that his goal is not to bring down Chavez or the UFW, but to tell the real story and show that two communities united to fight against the largest industry in the United States.
Despite opposition, Itliong says his work in spreading his father’s legacy isn’t challenging except when it comes to finances, as most expenses – including travel and lodging – are out-of-pocket.
“I put more into it than I’ve ever gotten out of it,” he said.
Itliong currently serves as the executive director of the Larry Itliong Foundation through Education, which seeks to educate communities, schools and the public about his father’s contributions.
Based in Northern California, Itliong is open to attending events that aren’t too far from him.
“I’ll do it because I’m definitely not in it for the money,” he said.
Ultimately, Itliong hopes that his dad’s legacy will be that he was a man for the people.
“I think he was never a man for just himself, to honor himself,” he said.
Moving forward, Itliong plans to keep doing what he’s been doing over the past three decades for Larry and the manongs.
“Yes I want to recognize my father, but you know what, my father was not alone and it was never [his] union: it was my dad worked for the union, for the people of the union, and he was the voice of it,” he said.