Riding with Filipino-American History

Posted on October 24, 2011 by


Johnny Itliong brought me to the Metro station in downtown LA.

A very casual affair.  In the short ride from Temple St to the Metro blue Line, we talked about bike riding without the proper tools, Cesar Chavez’ egotism, AK-47s, Cambodian history, all in an evenly-paced, solid manner that reminds me of Native American storytellers.

The name “Johnny Itliong” may not excite many people, but for me as a Filipino-American, it does.  Johnny Itliong is the son of Larry Itliong, one of seven children.  Larry Itliong is immortalized in a Historic Filipinotown mural.

Larry Itliong is the man who in the 1960s ignited the United Farm Workers movement, a movement that has become associated popularly and solely with Cesar Chavez and the Chicano power movement.  Itliong was second in command to Cesar Chavez at United Farm Workers.

Yesterday, Johnny Itliong was speaking at a Kabataan-maka-Bayan event to educate us more about his father’s work.

The event was at FACLA.  Filipino American Community of Los Angeles center on Temple Street.  I think of it as the old Filipinos and Veterans gathering center.

I got there from my folks home in the Valley at about 5 PM.   On bike.  I see Cy, my g-sis’ partner.  I walk in.  I set my bike inadvertently by a windowed office door, not realizing that there were people inside.  About a minute later, some middle-aged Filipino guy is signalling from the windowed door to remove my bike so he could get out.  He seems pretty annoyed.  I move my bike ever so slightly. He opens the door, and phewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!

My bike’s front tire loses all the air.  Never mind that I’d just pumped it earlier in the day.

Well.  There just compromised my mobility.  I  still had to go back down to my temporary abode in Lakewood, which meant a 4-5 mile walk to the Downtown Metro station.

After 20 minutes of wondering what the hell I was going to do, I decide to lock my bike against the stairwell, and settle into the crowd.  My g-sis was MCing the event, as she had been doing for pretty much every family function since she was like 13 years old.

Exchange fist pounds and handshakes with the fellow KmBers.  Say my “sups” to Chris, Ernie, Wes, Wendy, Johneric, Manila, Jay, Mark, Mr. Arturo Garcia.  Even Cheryl’s dad, my Tito Jerry, was there.

On stage, there were a lot of youth performers.  Rapping, DJing.  There was a quip about Saving SIPA Sessions, the DJing and rapping collective that happens at SIPA, an afterschool program.

Then we got to the keynote:  Johnny Itliong.

He opened up with a video well-known to the Filipino-American community.

“Bebot: Generation One” (Directed by Patricio Ginelsa) from Kid Heroes on Vimeo.

He brought that video to give us glimpse of the Filipino laborers who’d arrived in the 1920s and 1930s in farms throughout California, including Stockton and Delano.

We watched a clip from the documentary “Delano Manongs”, a movie highlighting how Filipinos came to the fields, got used and abused, and started demanding better conditions.

In his ensuing talk, I was taken aback by some of the statements he made, which centered around the realities of Cesar Chavez:

  • That Cesar Chavez had to be coaxed into joining the Grape Workers strike in September 1965.  Contrary to what the wikipedia entry might state, “he was not ready” to join those strikers.
  • Cesar Chavez turned in undocumented immigrants to authorities and made money off them.
  • That Cesar was egotistical and tried to turn it into a Chicano-centric movement.
  • That when Cesar was going to make a visit to the Philippines, he was going to visit Ferdinand Marcos, which Philip Vera Cruz, another Filipino-American luminary adamantly opposed.

.These were observations from a man who’d called Cesar Chavez “Tio”, had sat in Cesar’s lap.  It was a lot to take in.

For me it brought Cesar down to the human level, just as capable of bad as well good.

He touched briefly on the history of his dad.  He described him as a man who fought for everyone’s rights.

Larry Itliong arrived in California in the 1929.  As a farmworker, he built up years of organizing experience with various coalitions.  With language barriers and discrepancies in pay, there was a bit of a disconnect between the Filipino and Mexican laborers.

Ultimately, it was the alliance of the Filipinos and Mexicans that ignited the momentum for a movement.  An alliance sought and brought about by Larry Itliong.  However, his role has largely been ignored, and has effectively been erased from tellings and re-tellings of this piece of history.

Johnny is committed as heck to making sure that his dad as a representative of a piece of Philippine-American history isn’t ignored.  It is officially Larry Itliong Day in Carson on October15th and in LA County October 23rd.

After the event concluded, Johnny was still around walking with his curly-haired 11-year old son.

An enthusiastic really nice guy named Markos from Fresno was milling about. I noticed him shaking hands with everyone.   He got everyone to pose for a group picture.  When the meeting broke off, I saw that he started to make a motion for the Unity clap, which no one else seemed to acknowledge.  😦

I went to go retrieve my locked up bike.  As he left the building while I was unlocking my bike, I thanked Johnny for his talk and the work he did.

Trailing him was Markos.  Markos asked me if I needed help with my bike.  He thought I was having trouble, and he was right.  I told him I had a flat.

Markos said he was going to ask around for people who had bike pumps.  Knowing that I was usually the only commuting bicyclist to KmB meetings, I thought that it was going to be fruitless.

Not if you asked Johnny Itliong.

Johnny Itliong offered an automatic pump.

However the problem was that I had a presto valve on my front wheel, as opposed to the standard schrader valve.  I pumped anyway, but to no avail.

When that didn’t work, Johnny and his 6’2ness hauled my bike on top of his Suburban.  He bungeed the bike on top of his car. In went his son and Markos. I sat in the front seat.  I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me.

But for a minute it was nice to act like I was part of his family.