Editorial & Opinion

History lesson

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In his book “America is in the Heart: A Personal History,” the great Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan wrote about the dire straits of Filipino farm workers like himself in the United States. “I came to know afterward that in many ways, it was a crime to be a Filipino in California,” Bulosan wrote.

“It was the year of the great hatred: the lives of Filipinos were cheaper than those of dogs.”

Between 1910 and 1930, wave upon wave of young Filipino men came to America and found work mostly in its fields and canneries. In California they labored to help tame and develop the land, but their heroic efforts are barely acknowledged in recollections of the state’s history. But a significant step has recently been taken: The important role of Filipino-Americans in California’s labor history will now be taught in school.

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law AB 123, a pioneering measure requiring the state curriculum to include the contributions of Filipino-Americans to the farm labor movement in that state, according to a report last week by Inquirer.Net US Bureau.

It was Assemblymember Rob Bonta, the first Filipino-American in the California State Assembly, who sponsored the landmark bill. That it has been signed into law is the best way to mark October, which has been declared Filipino-American History Month, Bonta said. He also observed that while the ever-growing Filipino-American population is the largest Asian population in the state, “the story of Filipinos and their crucial efforts in the farm labor movement is an untold part of California history.”

Indeed, Filipino-American farm workers have been relegated to the sidelines of history for the longest time, when their efforts at forming and strengthening the US farm labor movement were no less significant than those of Mexican-American workers.

The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in California is generally known through its Latino leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, but not much is known about such Filipino-American leaders as PhilipVera Cruz, Larry Itliong and others. Vera Cruz, who traveled to the Philippines in 1987—after leaving in the late 1920s—to accept the Ninoy Aquino Award, died in virtual anonymity in California in 1994. But the veil covering his achievements and those of other Filipino-American farm workers may finally be lifted with the passage of AB 123. “These important leaders deserve to have their stories shared with future generations,” Bonta said. “We cannot let them be lost.”

It’s time the schoolchildren of California learned about the momentous Delano Grape Strike. On Sept. 8, 1965, there was a sudden stillness in the sprawling grape farms when, protesting meager wages and intolerable working conditions, Filipino workers belonging to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (Awoc) walked off the fields. Awoc was the brainchild of organizers Vera Cruz and Itliong, who strove mightily to uplift the lot of Filipino vegetable and grape pickers in the state. When Chavez’s NFWA coalesced with the Awoc, the strike gained increased momentum and thousands of Filipino and Latino workers joined the cause. The American public, learning of the workers’ struggle for their fundamental rights, joined the protest by waging a grape boycott. In 1970, the workers signed new contracts that promised better wages and improved working conditions.

Bonta, whose own parents had helped organize farm workers, said he was proud that Governor Brown recognized “the contributions of Filipinos to the history of our state and country … [by] including them in the history and social science curriculum” in California schools.

Vera Cruz put it clearly and well in interviews with Craig Scharlin and Lilia Villanueva, where he talked about hardship in the fields, the difficulties of labor organizing, the realities of union work and fundamental differences with Chavez. “If I could inspire one or two young people to be successful by hearing my story—which you know by now is the general story of all Filipino immigrants to [the United States]—if this one or two young people might turn into someone who could help change history, that would be good,” he said. “If someone is moved by this story to do something to help others, to make a sacrifice, to use his or her intellect for the good of their people, not only people in this country will be affected, but also those in the Philippines.” The lesson begins. 

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