Larry Itliong was a Filipino American labor leader who organized West Coast farm workers, starting in the 1930s. He became well-known in the 1960s for spearheading the Delano grape strike and teaming with labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to demand farm workers' rights. The five-year strike won better pay and benefits for agricultural workers and led to the eventual formation of the United Farm Workers.
"I feel we are just as good as any of them. I feel we have the same rights as any of them,” Itliong said in a 1976 speech. “Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice.”
Early Life and Migration to the United States
Modesto “Larry” Dulay Itliong was born on October 25, 1913 in the bucolic town of San Nicolas, Pangasinan Province, Philippines. He was among the six children of Francesca Dulay-Itliong and Aretemio Itliong. At an early age, Larry knew he wanted to become a lawyer to fight for the rights of the common people.
Itliong belonged to the “Manong” (Ilocano for “elder brother”) generation or the first major wave of Filipino immigrants in the United States between the 1900s to the 1930s. The Manongs were mostly young Filipino men who were recruited as a source of cheap labor when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony. They were enticed with the promises of the American Dream only to confront hardships and racial discrimination. As Itliong remarked in his 1976 speech to students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “You go to the United States where they pick money on trees. Did that happen? Hell, no!”
At the age of 14, Itliong migrated to the United States with hopes of earning his law degree. He first arrived in Alaska in 1929 and later found work in the different states, from the canneries of Alaska to the railroads of Montana and the agricultural fields of California. He later earned the nickname “seven fingers” after losing three of his fingers due to a work-related accident.
Activism, Military Service in World War II
Despite only finishing 6th grade back in the Philippines and not being able to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer in the United States, Itliong remained passionately committed to defending the rights of the poor. In 1930, he joined his first strike and within the same year he co-founded the Alaska Canneries Workers Union. Larry soon earned his reputation as a young fiery activist and a leading figure in labor organizing throughout the West Coast.
Apart from Ilocano, Pangasinense, Tagalog (Filipino), and six other Philippine languages, he also became fluent in English, Japanese, Cantonese and Spanish. Itliong honed his oratory skills to galvanize workers. He was often heard saying “Let’s go, don’t be scared! I’ll be in the front— just follow me” to embolden his fellow Manongs.
Itliong served in the U.S. Army from 1936 to 1943. He later gained U.S. citizenship in 1944 for his service in World War II. After returning from the war, he wasted no time in resuming his fight for worker’s rights. Itliong moved to Stockton, California and founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956, and the multi-ethnic Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in 1959.
The Delano Grape Strike
In May of 1965, Itliong led a successful strike of Filipino farm workers in vineyards of Coachella, California. This victory empowered farm workers throughout California’s Central Valley to protest against low wages and miserable working and living conditions. Among their demands were basic necessities such as clean water and toilets.
A little over three months later, on September 8, 1965, thousands of Filipino American farm workers led by AWOC went on strike in Delano, California. Itliong then asked the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, to join the Filipino American farm workers on strike. Chavez initially declined, believing that the Mexican American farm workers needed at least two more years to be ready.
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“May I let you know that it was our [Filipino] people who started the strike. Then our Mexican brothers followed suit. Since then the cooperation between these two groups has been good. It looks to me that this is the real beginning of a closer relationship between our people” Itliong wrote in a 1967 letter to Jose M. Leonidas.
Eight days later, on September 16, 1965, the Mexican American farm workers walked out and joined the Filipinos on strike. AWOC and NFWA soon merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement with Itliong as assistant director. The Delano grape strike lasted for five years and became one of the most pivotal labor movements in the history of the United States.
Continuing the Fight for Workers’ Rights
Itliong resigned from the UFW in 1971, citing concerns that the union was veering away from its mandate to serve farm workers equally. His grievances leading to his resignation included a lack of support and recognition for the aging Filipino American farm workers.
Itliong continued his mission to fight against injustices and promote workers’ rights after leaving the UFW. This included traveling to defend and organize farm workers in Brazil and Chile, and becoming an elected delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. Back home in California, Itliong oversaw the completion of the Agbayani Village, a housing development for retired Filipino farm workers.
Larry Itliong passed away on February 8, 1977 at the age of 63. He was survived by his wife and seven children. In 2015 the Alvarado Middle School in Union City, California was officially renamed the Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School, after Itliong and his friend and fellow Filipino American labor leader, Philip Vera Cruz. The State of California officially celebrates October 25 as “Larry Itliong Day” in honor of the labor leader’s legacy of fighting for social and economic justice.
“A Resolution of the City Council of the City of Carson, California, Establishing October 25, 2010 as Larry Itliong Day in Honor of his Life’s Work and Legacy to Promote and Fight for the Well Being of All of California’s Farm Workers" (City of Carson, California 2010).
Kirby Araullo, and Anthony Tayag. Know History: Who Were the First Filipinos in America? Davis, CA: Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies, 2018.
Cordova, Fred, Dorothy Laigo. Cordova, and Albert A. Acena. Filipinos, Forgotten Asian Americans: A Pictorial Essay, 1763-circa 1963. Place of Publication Not Identified: Demostration Project for Asian Americans, 1983.
Cruz, Adrián. "Racialized Fields: Asians, Mexicans, and the Farm Labor Struggle in California." PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009.
Emil Guillermo. "Restoring Larry Itliong to His Rightful Place during Filipino American History Month." AALDEF. October 16, 2013. https://www.aaldef.org/blog/restoring-larry-itliong-to-his-rightful-place-during-filipino-american-history-month/.
Larry Itliong. (2021, August 20). Retrieved from https://www.californiamuseum.org/inductee/larry-itliong