Larry Itliong was a Filipino American organizer and community leader who played an important role in the farm labor movement, including the Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s.
Who Was Larry Itliong?
A teenage Larry Itliong left the Philippines and arrived in the United States in 1929. Though he’d dreamed of studying law, Itliong first became a migrant worker, then a labor organizer who fought for better treatment and pay. He was a Filipino American “manong,” a respectful term from the Ilocano dialect meaning “older brother” that was used to refer to the Filipino men who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. Despite Cesar Chavez’s prominent involvement in the Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s, it was Itliong who coordinated the initial labor action that grew into a wide-ranging boycott. He was also a leader of one of the two unions that merged to become the well-known United Farm Workers. Itliong died at the age of 63 in 1977.
Early Life and Education
Larry Dulay Itliong was born on October 25, 1913, in San Nicolas, Pangasinan, Philippines. His parents were Artemio and Francesca Itliong.
Itliong left the Philippines for the United States when he was 15, arriving in 1929. Due to the annexation of the Philippines by the United States at the end of the 19th century, Filipinos were U.S. nationals and not subject to the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred immigrants from Asia.
Itliong finished the sixth grade before his move to the United States. He wanted to become a lawyer in his new country, but poverty and racism prevented him from following that path. In addition to English, he was able to speak several Filipino dialects, Spanish, Cantonese and Japanese.
Career and Labor Activism
Itliong started his career by moving around the country to work, usually finding jobs on farms picking produce or in canneries. He went on strike with lettuce workers in Washington state in the 1930s and co-founded the Alaska Cannery Workers Union. With Itliong’s help, the union obtained a contract with an eight-hour workday and overtime for its members.
In Stockton, California, which became Itliong’s home after his service during World War II, he helped direct the asparagus strike of 1948. This was the first large-scale agricultural strike in the postwar period. Itliong founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union in Stockton in 1956. Then, with Philip Vera Cruz and other manongs active in the labor movement, Itliong worked to establish the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which was affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Delano Grape Strike and the United Farm Workers
May 1965 saw Itliong successfully organize a strike to elevate the pay of grape workers in California’s Coachella Valley. On September 7 of that year, with Itliong present as an AWOC leader, Filipino American grape workers voted to go on strike in Delano, California. More than 2,000 began their walkout the next day. Itliong soon reached out to Chavez to ask if the Mexican American members of the National Farm Workers Association would also take part in the action. Chavez was initially wary, but he and fellow organizer Dolores Huerta ended up speaking to NFWA members. The result was a unanimous vote to join the strike.
Itliong’s actions helped spur a five-year grape boycott that reached across the United States and beyond its borders. Along the way, in 1966, the two unions AWOC and NFWA joined together to become the United Farm Workers. Chavez headed the UFW, while Itliong was an assistant director who handled worker support efforts throughout the strike and boycott.
A successful end to the Delano Grape Strike in 1970 brought workers higher pay, medical insurance and limits on pesticide use. Itliong also ensured that Paolo Agbayani Village, a retirement community for Filipino American workers, would receive a portion of the income from each grape box picked.
Itliong resigned from the UFW in 1971 because he did not agree with how the organization was being run. He became president of the Filipino American Political Association and was a delegate at 1972’s Democratic National Convention.
Itliong was married six times and had seven children.
Itliong was missing three fingers, which led to his nickname of “Seven Fingers.” There is no definitive explanation as to how he lost those digits.
Death and Legacy
Itliong’s home state of California has recognized his birthday, October 25, as Larry Itliong Day. The state is also taking steps to have students learn more about Filipino American history and leaders like Itliong.
A children’s book, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong (2018), recounts Itliong’s life story.