I was 11 at the time and do not remember anyone I knew not eating grapes.
In the late 1960s, grapes grabbed national attention—and not in a good way.
Newly organized farm workers, fronted by Mexican-American civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez, asked Americans to boycott the popular California fruit because of the paltry pay and poor work conditions agricultural laborers were forced to endure. Using nonviolent tactics like marches and hunger strikes, grape pickers made their plight a part of the national civil-rights conversation.
It took time, but their efforts paid off: In 1970, after five years of the so-called Delano grape strike, farm workers won a contract promising better pay and benefits. A few years later, their efforts led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which established collective-bargaining power for farmworkers statewide.
But while Chavez has been honored with a national monument, a postage stamp and three state holidays, he wasn’t the only catalyst for change. Or even the leading one. Rather, it was Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American organizer, who led a group of Filipino-American grape workers to first strike in September 1965.
“The Filipinos were far more radical” than the Mexican-American farm workers, says Matt Garcia, a professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. “They were focused like a laser, and decided that they were going to force the issue.”
Who Started the Delano Grape Strike?
The farm workers of Central California’s San Joaquin Valley largely hailed from two groups: Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans. But while they performed the same jobs in the same fields, they had arrived into California’s agricultural industry via very different routes.
The first big wave of Filipino migration to the U.S. came between the two world wars. According to the book Little Manila is in the Heart by Dawn Mabalon, more than 31,000 Filipinos came to California between 1920 and 1929, many in search of agricultural work. Most came from rural areas of the Philippines, having sold off farm animals, crops and small parcels of land in order fund the 7,000-plus-mile journey across the Pacific.
As a group, they were more than 90 percent male. And because anti-miscegenation laws forbade interracial marriage in California, many Filipino men who settled in the U.S. remained single. Those laws were finally changed in 1948, but at the dawn of the Delano grape strike, many from that wave of Filipino-American immigrants (often called “Manongs,” which translates to “older brothers”) had failed to marry. They were aging into their 50s and 60s, still single and living together in communal farm barracks.
Roger Gadiano, a 72-year-old Filipino American who grew up in Delano in the 1960s, says he was one of the only “pure-breed” Filipino children in the town.
“There were less than a dozen,” Gadiano says. “I knew them all.”
With so many unmarried male laborers geographically untethered to homes and families, Filipino migrant workers were able to cross a broad swath of territory every year, bouncing season to season from Alaskan salmon canneries to Washington apple orchards to the grape harvests of California.
Their constant movement, Garcia says, gave Filipinos the chance to see their labor in different settings, and to witness the power of organized labor more than their comparably less-mobile Mexican counterparts.
“They saw the possibility of extracting themselves from the oppression of the workplace,” says Garcia. “They saw different paths.” By contrast, Garcia says, the more rooted Mexican-American farmworkers were “beaten down and fighting against structures of oppression that they were born into.”