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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.