Grapes Of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led A Farmworker Revolution : The Salt Cesar Chavez inspired the world; Larry Itliong inspired Cesar Chavez. In 1965, the Filipino laborer led California grape pickers on a strike that would spark the modern farmworker movement.

Grapes Of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led A Farmworker Revolution

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

U.S. labor history was made 50 years ago in California's Central Valley. You've probably heard of the United Farm Workers and certainly know the name Cesar Chavez. But as Lisa Morehouse reports, it was actually Filipino farm workers who first walked off the vineyards, which set off the Grape Strike

LISA MOREHOUSE, BYLINE: It would be really easy to drive through the town of Delano, Calif., and have no idea that history was made here. It's a hot, dry farm town with an annual Philippine Weekend parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOREHOUSE: It's a cultural celebration and kind of family reunion. A group of young women, all born and raised here, hang out at the end of the parade route.

When you guys were in school, was the farm worker movement taught at all? Did any, like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, no, not at all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Learned it in the streets.

(LAUGHTER)

MOREHOUSE: And did any of them know that it was Filipinos, mostly men in their 60s, who first walked off the vineyards? Melanie Retuda says she only learned about that last year.

MELANIE RETUDA: I've always known Cesar Chavez and, you know, Hispanics being involved. But being Filipino, it's like, wow, Filipinos actually made an impact during the process. So it makes me proud.

MOREHOUSE: The true story of the Grape Strike happened in unassuming places, a white stucco building where Cesar Chavez held his first hunger strike, a high school auditorium where then-Senator Bobby Kennedy spoke in support of the farm workers. Longtime resident Roger Gadiano leads college students and others on tours to these places and to Filipino hall. It's a community center, but to Gadiano...

ROGER GADIANO: This is a shrine. I guess it's our Selma. This is it.

MOREHOUSE: The hub of activity for the first years of the farm worker movement.

GADIANO: We're part of a big history, which is bold. We took a step that no one would take.

MOREHOUSE: Where are we going now?

GADIANO: Say hello to Manong Larry.

MOREHOUSE: Gadiano ends the tour at the simple gravesite of the father of the Delano Grape Strike, Larry Itliong.

GADIANO: He gave our people some dignity. He gave us guts.

MOREHOUSE: For decades, the migrant, bachelor, Filipino farm workers called Manongs, or elders, fought for better working conditions. So historian Dawn Mabalon says in the summer of 1965, with pay cuts threatened around the state, they were prepared to act.

DAWN MABALON: They're led by this really charismatic and veteran, seasoned militant labor leader, Larry Itliong.

MOREHOUSE: He urged local families in Delano to join Manongs in asking farmers for a raise. The growers balked. Mabalon says workers gathered at Filipino Hall for a strike vote.

MABALON: The next morning, they went out to the vineyards and then they left the crop on the ground. And then they walked out.

MOREHOUSE: An act memorialized in this popular song, written and sung by strikers. Now, Cesar Chavez and others have been organizing Mexican workers around Delano for a few years. But a strike wasn't in their immediate plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUELGA EN GENERAL")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MOREHOUSE: But Larry Itliong appealed to Chavez. And two weeks later, Mexican workers joined the strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUELGA EN GENERAL")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MOREHOUSE: Soon, says Dawn Mabalon, the two unions came together to form what would become United Farm Workers, with Larry Itliong assistant director under Chavez.

MABALON: These two groups coming together to do this - that is the power in the Delano Grape Strike.

MOREHOUSE: It took five years of striking plus an international boycott of table grapes before growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers. Those years weren't easy on strikers, families or Delano.

ALEX EDILLOR: There was a strange division among us.

MOREHOUSE: Alex Edillor was just 11 years old when his parents walked off the fields. He remembers the tension, even in church.

EDILLOR: The church kind of split down the middle of the church, where this is where the strikers went and this is where the people who went back to work went.

MOREHOUSE: Edillor says it's important for people today to learn about these efforts.

EDILLOR: Not only is it a point of pride, it's a point of fact, just to understand that we stand on the shoulders of people who struggled before us.

MABALON: I feel the hurt of a generation.

MOREHOUSE: Again, historian Dawn Mabalon.

MABALON: It's our story and it really demands our love and attention and respect. And we need to tell this story.

MOREHOUSE: And that's happening. Mabalon's writing a biography of Larry Itliong. And California governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation recognizing Larry Itliong Day, and requiring public schools to teach this history. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse in Delano.

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