It’s Larry Itliong’s Day, not Rishi Sunak’s | Inquirer
 
 
 
 
 
 
Emil Amok!

It’s Larry Itliong’s Day, not Rishi Sunak’s

/ 10:55 AM October 25, 2022

In 2015 then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill establishing Larry Itliong Day every Oct. 25, Itliong’s birthday.

In 2015 then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill establishing Larry Itliong Day every Oct. 25, Itliong’s birthday.

Larry Itliong, Larry Itliong. Larry Itliong. Not Rishi Sunak, though he was a nice Diwali gift to our South Asian brothers and sisters in the UK.

But for Filipinos, Oct. 25 is for the Filipino American union leader who merged the labor and the civil rights era by starting the great Delano Grape Strike. Itliong was the spark, the first to lead the unionists to the picket line.

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Correct the record. It was definitely  Larry Itliong not Cesar Chavez, the man for which they name streets and monuments and schools and libraries.

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Chavez was there for the fight in the long run, but he had to be dragged into it once Itliong and the Filipinos were there. They were the unionists representing the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AFL-CIO). Chavez’s was but a fledgling community group of new arrivals from Mexico. Not a union. But there were more of them, and even Itliong realized he needed the mass of workers to boost the number of aging Filipino manongs, who had worked in the fields for decades.

That’s the real story.  But Itliong is rarely remembered. Then in 2015 then California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill establishing Larry Itliong Day every Oct. 25, Itliong’s birthday.

As people discover Filipino American history, Itliong is like a piece of a puzzle they never knew existed.

But Larry was there. We just didn’t see him, like the others. The manongs who came to America in the 20s, my father’s generation.

Larry was like my father, but younger. He came to America in 1929 from Pangasinan, and while my dad stayed in San Francisco to work in the restaurants, Itliong went straight to the fields to Stockton and then up and down the west coast to Alaska. There he worked the canneries and lost some fingers. That’s how he got the nickname “Seven Fingers.”

Larry was a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a crew cut, a cigar in his mouth, and the gamble in his heart.

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He took risks. He loved the fight, the struggle. It’s what makes a union leader.

While he provided that initial dream of the Delano Strike, he chafed under the organization that resulted after the merger of Chavez’ group and his own.

He left the union after a short time.

In taped lectures he gave at UC Santa Cruz, Itliong showed his personality as a gruff philosopher.

“You go to the United States, where they pick money on trees,” Itliong said. “Did that happen? Hell, no.”

When Itliong first arrived, he found Filipinos in the fields making less than a dime an hour. He started his first labor strike in 1930.

“I have the ability to make that white man know I am just as mean as anybody in this world,” Itliong said in that lecture. “I could make him think, and I could make them recognize that I’m a mean son of bitch in terms of my direction, fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in the Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice. You’ve got to make that come about. They are not going to give it to you.”

Itliong had the belief and the fight in him.

He needed it as he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which took his life on Feb. 8, 1977. That day also happens to be my father’s birthday. Just another psychic coincidence to make sure we don’t forget how connected we are to the past.

So maybe you’re not in California. Wherever you are, remember Manong Larry.

March somewhere today. By yourself, if need be. Make it a walk with purpose.

Take a risk. Blow a smoke ring.  Standup and shout for Filipinos in America.

It’s Larry’s day.

Now what if he were Rishi Sunak

Pretend it’s a parlor game. Larry used to talk about being true to being Filipino and not selling out “to the man.”

He would brag about people offering him money to do things politically. Not bribes, just compensation for backing candidates, or even to help Cesar Chavez with the union after he left.

Because he stood up for himself as an individual, free and unencumbered, he didn’t rise traditionally.

He would say he was happy with his bagoong and tomatoes, his pusit and rice. He was his own man.

What would he have been with a little more polish?

Could he have risen up the ladder? Like a Rishi Sunak?

In his day, Itliong was courted by political leaders and bragged about being a guy with a high school education being in demand by the powerful.

But it wasn’t his world or his time.

Sunak, the son of Indian immigrants from Africa, born in Britain, attended the best schools including Stanford, is the classic latter day smart brown guy, with a touch of privilege and money. He made his own at Goldman Sachs, then married into Indian wealth.

He is a calculatingly obnoxious made man.

Which may be why he gets the reaction he does. He was somewhat humbled when he was shunned the first time for prime minister a few weeks ago when Liz Truss was selected.

Sunak was seen as “too elite.”

Too elite? A brown man in perfect white face? The revenge of colonialism, Sunak is beyond the stiff upper lip. He’s the brown man as white mannequin. He’s the curse of Mountbatten and Churchill combined. Coming back to run the whole damn country.

It would be sweet under most circumstances. But the knock on Sunak is he really is out of touch. He doesn’t know the poor South Asians in Britain. He knows economics. He knows how to add to the dole. But he also knows to cut it.  He’s a conservative, slightly more moderate, less of a “trickle down” type, than Thatcherites. But he is a conservative.

And Indians in lower classes see him as both privileged and foreign. And  lacking the fight and fury of a compassionate leader who thinks about them. The people. It’s a problem for rich elite guys.

In other words, he’s not for the little guy. He’s more like a big guy who needs to be cut down to size.

Sunak?  Frankly, right now, he could use a little bit of Itliong.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.

Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator. He writes a column for the Inquirer.net’s North American bureau.

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