Does 'Cesar Chavez' Ignore Filipino Workers?

The film Cesar Chavez focuses on the Mexican-American activist who helped organize farm workers. But some say the movie ignores the Filipino laborers in that movement. Filmmaker Marisa Aroy explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We've been talking about civil rights this week. Earlier this hour, we talked about the legacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And yesterday, we remembered Marion Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

And recently, we learned more about the Mexican-American civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, who helped to organize farmworkers in California. There's a new film out about him. So now we're finding out that the story of the Filipino farmworkers who stood with Chavez and other Mexican-American activists also deserves more attention. These men - and they were mostly men, single men - had come to the United States in the '20s and '30s looking for better lives.

Their story is being told in a new documentary produced and directed by Marissa Aroy. It is called the "The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers." And Marissa Aroy is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARISSA AROY: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So we mentioned that a lot of people are familiar - are becoming more familiar with Cesar Chavez and his involvement with the United Farmworkers. But it seems that a lot fewer people know about Larry Itliong, who was second-in-command at the United Farmworkers. Why do you think that is? Was it just that his public profile was never as high during the course of the movement?

AROY: His public profile was definitely not as high as it was - as Cesar Chavez's was. He did talk a lot in public, but it's not as well recorded as it was for Cesar Chavez.

MARTIN: But thankfully, for the film, you have recordings of him talking. I just want to play a clip from your documentary. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE DELANO MANONGS: FORGOTTEN HEROES OF THE UFW")

LARRY ITLIONG: I'm going to be very frank with you, I have all kinds of guts, you know. I'm not scared of nobody. And I'm a son of a [bleep] in terms of fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country.

MARTIN: Now one of the things that I think people are learning from the new film out about Ceasar Chavez is that he tended to mention Martin Luther King Jr., he was very much a part of the nonviolent school of protest. Was Larry Itliong - did he have a different approach?

AROY: He certainly had a different approach from Cesar Chavez. He grew up in the school of hard knocks, and he would put it that way as well. Coming in here to the U.S., he was a part of really hard unions. I mean, AFL-CIO was the sponsor for his organizing group in Delano, California.

And so it was hard tactics and it was beating up people who would dare cross the picket line, and it was getting a lot of violence and inflicting violence. And so he actually had to learn from Cesar Chavez how to be nonviolent and to see how that would attract a bigger movement of people.

MARTIN: Do you think that it's in part also the demographics of who the farmworkers were? We mentioned earlier that many of the Filipino farmworkers came here as single men, whereas the Mexican-Americans because they were probably closer by often times were coming in as families.

And so maybe is it that sort of the attention was focused on them because they were more - what's the word I'm looking at - sort of palatable? Kind of camera ready in a way, kind of more sympathetic as kind of the public face of the movement - do you think that might have been part of it?

AROY: Oh, certainly. But also, the Filipino men were older by the time - by the 1960s. So I don't know if you would see them in the forefront of the strikes. I mean, you have a couple of pieces here and there of film clips where you see them singing or you see them talking in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano in the fields to their fellow farmworkers who are not picketing or not on their side.

But the majority of the farmworkers were Mexican, and so you just don't see as much talk about the Filipinos, although people in the movement, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, any of the activists who were there at the time, have a lot of love for the Manongs.

Dolores Huerta's daughter talks about how her mother was always off having to do organizing somewhere in California or outside of the country, and the Manongs were the ones who took care of her. So she feels a lot of affection for them. They were like the older uncles of the movement and so they were taken care of by the UFW.

MARTIN: What was the role of the Filipino farmworkers in the movement, though? As I understand it, they were actually the first to go on strike.

AROY: Yes. Their role was that they had wanted a few cents more per box of grapes. And it was as simple as that. They were older men, they wanted retirement money. They wanted to be able to have a comfortable life after being in the fields for decades.

They were really the ones who wanted this hardline strike. And when the Mexicans joined in with them, when the NFWA joined in with them, it became more of a movement of people.

MARTIN: The Cesar Chavez film makes reference to an attempt to divide and conquer, as it were, to kind of pit the Filipinos against the Mexicans in order to divide the movement. Did that really happen?

AROY: Certainly. That's something that the farmers had used for decades - trying to pit the different ethnic groups from each other. It happened in Hawaii for the sugarcane plantations and the workers there, and it happened in California with all the different ethnic groups.

You offer a little bit more to this group - say you offer more money to the Mexicans and you're fighting with the Filipinos 'cause you want them to lower their prices. So you're certainly trying to pit the groups against each other so that farmers can save money.

MARTIN: And what was Larry Itliong's role in this?

AROY: Well, you know, in Delano, California it had a different dynamic because you had Mexicans and Filipinos who were friends. And you had people like Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta who were friends from Stockton from their organizing days there.

Both came down to Delano to do organizing in different groups, but they knew each other from a previous time organizing together. So you couldn't have one group doing something without the other group knowing as well. And they were talking to each other. They were socializing.

My grandfather had a bar in Delano, California, and Richard Chavez - Cesar Chavez's brother - talks about shining the shoes of my grandfather and how my grandfather would tip him money. And it was just a small town. So you get small-town communication - everybody knows what everyone else is doing.

MARTIN: So finally, Marissa, how would you like Larry Itliong to be remembered, and the other Filipino farmworkers who were part of this movement?

AROY: Well, I think all of us need heroes. I didn't grow up with any of this history. To me it's so important for me to know we have this base. We've had a voice in the past. And I think every group needs that in order to feel like they can aspire to speaking up and to bringing our community together.

MARTIN: Marissa Aroy is director of the new documentary, "The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers." The film is on the festival circuit now and is scheduled to air on PBS next year. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Marissa, thank you so much for joining us.

AROY: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

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