Larry Itliong had principles, Colin Powell had medals
Gen. Colin Powell died last week. And some things I’ve said about him should be clarified.
But first, since this is Filipino American History Month, let me honor an Asian American Filipino of note Larry Itliong.
October 25 is Itliong’s birthday, and an official “day” in California. Not a holiday, you still have to work it. But then again, Itliong was far from a holy man, just principled.
Unlike Powell, Itliong had no medals.
He did have seven-fingers (lost three when he migrated to Alaska and worked in the salmon canneries). And you could usually find him holding a cigar. He wasn’t a soldier. Just a fighter. And he was part of history. For a time in the late ‘60s he was seen as the most powerful Filipino American in the country with politicians courting him for endorsements, most notably Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in their runs for president.
Itliong’s fame came from starting the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, leading a group of Filipino farmhands in California’s Central Valley that ultimately formed the basis of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).
Cesar Chavez’s union? That’s the problem. It was Itliong who started it all demanding that growers pay workers $1.40 an hour.
Chavez and his group joined days after the strike began, but it was Itliong and the Filipinos that were affiliated with the AFL-CIO. That’s what essentially merged the labor rights with the civil rights movement in the U.S.
And yet it’s Chavez who people talk about and remember as a national hero. They name schools and parks after him. Not Itliong. But that’s starting to change.
This past weekend, deep in California’s Central Valley, a community resource center was named for Itliong where Filipinos and Mexican Americans still work the fields. Latinix leader Dolores Huerta was there with California Attorney General Rob Bonta to commemorate in Poplar, California.
It’s been said that historians and journalists overlooked Itliong and looked uncritically at Chavez because of the latter’s charismatic sense that came from adopting the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Dr. King.
That was a stark contrast to a battle-hardened Itliong, who saw decades of often violent racism in the fields but who still evolved into a principled union man.
So Chavez may have been the man who said yes, “Si Se Puede.”
But Itliong revered and respected the workers, and he leveraged it cunningly through the force of the labor strike, simply by knowing the power of saying no.
Itliong said no to the growers; no to those who would attempt to buy him off. But ultimately, he also said no to the UFW when he disagreed with its strategy and tactics.
Filipinos wanted to fight and strike. Chavez wanted to do hunger strikes and march from the fields to the state capitol in Sacramento.
As one Itliong loyalist, the late Ernesto Mabalon, once said of Chavez, “Marching 366 miles behind a statue of the Virgin Mary is not a strike.”
Chavez needed Itliong to show him the way. After that, Itliong had to move on. He may not have had medals. But he had principles.
In a talk with Asian American history students at UC Santa Cruz in 1976 he told this story.
“A lot want to buy me off,” Itliong told the students. “One of the biggest organizations that I grew up with in this country offered me $200,000.”
Itliong described the offer: “They said, Larry Itliong, we know you need money. You’re doing a good job in California. We’ll give you $200,000 to do whatever you want to do.”
But then he described the conditions.
The money would be his… “if you’re going to help Cesar Chavez run the service center,” he says on the tape. “Just the implication that I’m supporting Cesar Chavez, they want to give me $200,000.”
This was after he left the United Farm Workers union early as a VP to Chavez. It was as if the union acknowledged Chavez needed Itliong to unify the two biggest groups in the fields, the Mexicans and the Filipinos.
“You know what I tell them,” he said. “I don’t need that $200,000. I can eat rice and pusit (squid), bagoong (anchovy paste), mango. I don’t need $200,000.”
The young Pinoy students were amazed at the time by his refusal.
“I said, $200,000 to sell out my countrymen?,” Itliong asked rhetorically. “I figure we have about 350,000 Filipinos in California. That’s only $200,000. That’s not even $1 dollar a head. No, I don’t want your money. If I want to sell my countrymen, then give me $50 million–I’ll take it.”
So Itliong did name his price, but as he told the story, he laughed with the students in the seminar. “Do you want to buy my countrymen, give me $50 million?”
Larry Itliong would’ve never sold out his fellow Filipinos. And that’s why we do not forget Itliong on Filipino American History Month.
One more time on Colin Powell
Principles come into play in Gen. Colin Powell’s story as well.
Recently when considering Powell, I may have given him too much credit when I was writing as a human being in the moment. The news had broken of Powell’s death, and I was simply reacting at face value, in sympathy and sorrow at the loss. A man of uniform and medals, a BIPOC American success story had died.
I did not thoughtfully consider his mistakes.
I now realize I’d given him a pass on his not so insignificant past. Was I following orders from the general? I probably wrote that column exactly the way Powell would have wanted.
I did mention how Powell himself admitted a “blot” on his record, that being his speech before the UN National Security Committee in 2003 where Secretary of State Powell falsely declared Saddam Hussein had the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. It was used to justify the Iraq War, but we now know Saddam had no such capability. Powell should have known better. And should have resigned instead of playing into the “good soldier” role, following the dictates of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et.al.
But as it turns out, it was just the most egregious of a few blots.
Last week, a friend asked, “What about My Lai?”
The rape massacre of hundreds of innocent Vietnamese people took place March 1968. Dozens were charged in the murder, but only one man was convicted Lt. William Calley, Jr., the platoon leader. His life sentence turned into just 3 ½ years under house arrest.
As Charles Kaiser wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, Powell as a young Army Major was asked to investigate a soldier’s letter that described the atrocities against the Vietnamese people. Powell rejected the charges and wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Apparently, Powell was learning how to play the game all too well. And when he found himself at the moral crossroads, he did not always do the right thing.
A guest editorial in the New York Times by Theodore Johnson was entitled “The Paradox of Colin Powell.” It spoke to the contradictions in assessing the man. Soldier, statesman. African American, Republican. Just as I did, the essay author also looked to Powell as a “first,” and what is implied when one who is the only BIPOC in the room.
As I see it, it’s a survival game at the top. Does it matter what you stand for if you’re no longer standing? So you say what you must, and not what you should. Not if you’re re still carrying someone else’s water. Someone else’s truth.
That’s how one gets set up to be the shiny hood ornament on a Bush-Cheney armored tank. That’s how blots are created along the way.
Powell beat off the critics with his charisma and medals. They were good for something. He also flashed some principle later in public life. Bucking the GOP to back Obama in 2008. Then again, as a Never-Trumper, when he left the Republican party after Jan. 6.
It may not balance all the blots of an imperfect leader, but that’s all part of the paradox. And these days after the last four years, all the leadership meters are askew.
As for me, I was considering Powell in the moment, October 2021. It informed the compassion I felt for Powell the man now, on the week he passed. For that I’m not ashamed.
This we can say honestly about Colin Powell: He made mistakes. But he wasn’t a mistake.