Harold Filan/AP

In Cesar Chavez biopic, Filipinos’ role in union ‘overlooked’

Filipino-Americans are protesting how laborers from their community are ignored in new historical movie

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.

Cesar Chavez, the Hispanic civil rights icon.
Cathy Murphy/Getty Images

Filipinos landed in droves. They did not face immigration restrictions, unlike other Asians, because the Philippines had become a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War, he said. They became the backbone of cheap labor in California agriculture — vital to efficiency but vulnerable to abuse.

“There has been a history of exploiting immigrant labor in the Central Valley of California,” said Wong.

Roaming where the seasons took him, Larry Itliong, of the manong generation, harvested asparagus in central California. Then he went to the lettuce fields of Washington, where he arrived in the United States in 1929. He helped form unions such as a predominantly Filipino union for Alaska cannery workers — known as Alaskeros — and helped organize strikes against bosses who often denied laborers decent pay or had them work in extreme conditions with little shelter from extreme heat and sun, lack of water, no breaks and zero restrooms.

“I have that ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world. I could make him think, and I could make them recognize that I’m a mean son of a bitch in terms of my direction for the rights of Filipinos,” Larry Itliong once said — a quote his son has been sharing as a way of highlighting his key role.

In 1965, Larry Itliong was the head of the mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee when they walked off the grape fields and sparked the famous grape strike. Itliong had the group forge alliances with Chavez and his group, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which had a Hispanic majority.

“My father knew growers’ tactic was to pit races against each other,” said Johnny Itliong.

A year later, the two groups merged into the United Farm Workers, with Chavez as director and Itliong as assistant director.

Michael Peña as Chavez in the new film.
Everett Collection

But Filipino critics say the Chavez movie gives only a very brief glimpse of the first Filipino strikers and does not provide much context or explain their role. It shows Larry Itliong in only a few shots as a bystander. Other Filipino labor activists and leaders such as Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, Ben Gines and Andy Imutan are absent, according to a press release from the FANHS.

In one pivotal movie scene, Chavez is depicted signing a labor contract with the grape growers as Itliong is in the audience. Kevin Nadal, president of the New York City FANHS chapter and a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said historical pictures show otherwise — that Itliong was at the table too.

That omission was part of what led Johnny Itliong to leave in the middle of the movie premiere in Los Angeles last month. He said he was incensed by the biopic’s focus on Chavez as a lone heroic figure, with little attention paid to Filipinos like his father. He said he stumbled across the film’s director, Diego Luna, in the lobby, and asked why his father wasn’t shown at the contract signing.

“It’s just that, a movie. It’s not factual or historical,” said Itliong. “They made him [Chavez] out to be a superhero. It’s far from the truth.”

Of course, complaining about Hollywood films’ simplifying real life is a phenomenon as old as the movie industry itself. Godfrey Cheshire, movie critic and filmmaker, said simplification is inevitable. “The nature of biopics and many historical dramas are, they have to simplify for dramatic reasons. It’s hard to tell historical stories in two hours,” said Cheshire, who reviewed the movie for

“It can be done in a worse fashion or better fashion,” he said. “Some filmmakers dramatically simplify and rob movies of their nuance.”

Despite their criticism of the film’s treatment of Filipinos, some are still pleased with its exploration of a vital moment in U.S. labor history, especially since high-profile movies about unions are relatively rare. “Unions as a positive social institution have not been promoted in mainstream media,” Wong said. “Media underreports stories of unions and workers. What’s remarkable is, it’s a Cesar Chavez movie — one of the first in decades focused on unions and a labor leader.”

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