When Johnny Itliong, a 49-year-old chef in Ventura, Calif., watched the movie “Cesar Chavez,” he had to walk out on it. It confirmed his worst fears about the biopic of the charismatic union activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers union.
Filipino labor leaders like his father, Larry Itliong, were either depicted as bystanders or ignored in the portrayal of Chavez, a Hispanic civil rights icon, and the long struggle to secure better working conditions for California laborers during the 1965 Delano grape strike and boycott.
That has angered Johnny Itliong and other Filipino community figures. Far from the diminished role they play in the movie, the Filipinos started earlier strikes all along the West Coast and were active partners with Chavez, not spectators as mostly shown in the movie, they argue.
Itliong and other Filipino-Americans have protested against the movie and are using it to highlight Filipino leaders and their roles in the strikes and the labor movement and the larger, neglected history of Filipinos in North America.
“I am going to educate [people that] Filipinos were involved. We were taught Chavez did it all,” said Itliong.
It is a little corner of American labor and civil rights history that is not widely known, except for a passionate group of Filipino-Americans such as Itliong and Dorothy Cordova, executive director of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), based in Seattle. It plays into a feeling among some Filipino-Americans that they are often an ignored minority in the U.S.
“There’s a deep history of Filipinos in this country,” said Cordova, 82, who started the FANHS with her husband, Fred Cordova, who passed away last year. “We were overlooked. We have always been overlooked. It wasn’t being researched,” she said about Filipino-American history, the role of Filipinos in the labor movement and the Chavez movie.
From almost the beginning of colonial history in the New World, Filipinos have been here, she said. Their presence was often linked to the labor they provided. In 1587, eight Filipino sailors landed on Morro Bay, north of Santa Barbara, Calif. — the first recorded Filipinos in North America. They were part of a small Spanish and Portuguese expedition that landed during the thriving galleon trade between Manila and Mexico. The first Filipinos on American soil scouted the strange land, according to historical records.
Fast-forward to the 1920s and 1930s, a wave of thousands of Filipino immigrants arrived on the West Coast to pick apples, lettuce, grapes and other fruits and vegetables. They went as far as Alaska to work in fish canneries. They were considered the manong generation, using an honorific for an older brother in Ilokano, a Filipino language. Before the 1960s, Filipinos were the majority immigrant labor force in Central California, after the Japanese and earlier the Chinese, who faced discrimination and immigration laws that limited their number, said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Los Angeles.