Larry Itliong was one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century and a father of the West Coast labor movement. Active in labor organizing from the 1930s to the 1970s, he led Filipino farm workers in starting the Delano grape strike, which would become one of the most significant labor actions in farm worker history.
Born in the Philippines, Itliong came to the US in 1929 hoping to become a lawyer. Instead, he ended up working on farms along the West Coast, experiencing how badly laborers were treated. Seeing the power they could gain by working together, he was inspired to become an activist.
After WWII, Itliong got his U.S citizenship and in 1954 he moved to Stockton, CA, where he became an organizer for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). He was so good at recruiting new members that AWOC leaders asked him to move to Delano to organize the Filipino grape workers.
On September 8, 1965, Itliong led 2,000 mostly Filipino AWOC members in walking off the grape vineyards for better pay and working conditions. Knowing that the strike could only succeed if the Mexican American National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) joined, he approached the rival organization.
NFWA leader César Chávez was wary at first, but he and the union’s co-leader Dolores Huerta agreed to bring the question of striking to their members for a vote. On September 16, the Mexican workers joined the Filipinos, and so began the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott.
In 1966, with the strike continuing, AWOC and NFWA merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (later known as the UFW), with Chávez as director and Itliong as assistant director. After the merger, the two unions could better coordinate their activities, a key to success.
Itliong led worker support efforts throughout the strike and boycott, which lasted five years and reached across North America. It was one of was one of the most visible and important social justice and labor movements in American history, ending with victory for the farm workers.
Itliong married six times and had seven children. He raised his family in the Delano area and in the Little Manila community of Stockton, California. This photo is from his daughter Patty’s christening in 1969.
Feeling that Filipinos were not represented equally in the union, Itliong resigned from the UFW in 1971. He went on to become the president of the Filipino American Political Association and was a delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
One of Itliong’s lasting legacies was conceiving of and securing funding for the construction and support of Agbayani Village in Delano. Completed in 1974, the community provides retired Filipino farmworkers safe and comfortable housing, human dignity, and respect in their final years.
Itliong died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in Delano in 1977, at age 63. In 1995, the first mural honoring Filipino American farmworkers was completed in LA’s Historic Filipinotown, which featured Itliong. October 25 is Larry Itliong Day in California, in honor of his contributions to the state.