DELANO, Calif. (KGET) — The history of the U.S. farm labor movement begins and ends in California’s Central Valley and especially in Kern County, where the 1965 Grape Boycott thrust agricultural working conditions into the national consciousness.
From that movement, two individuals in particular came to prominence, cast as both heroes and antagonists, depending on one’s point of view: United Farm Workers founders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. But there is another character in this saga, a character given short shrift by history: Filipino-American farm labor leader Larry Itliong, who actually convinced Chavez and Huerta to set aside their doubts and proceed with the historic five-year strike.
Now that leader — Modesto Dulay Itliong, better known as Larry or, for apparently literal reasons, “Seven Fingers” — is finally getting his due during this, Filipino Heritage Month.
Ricardo Chavez, principal of Morningside School, puts it this way: “Larry Itliong believed in equality, so …. we have to turn that around and say we have to make it equal as well for him, because … he’s part of that movement.”
Last week the World War II veteran was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, and this week Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring this Sunday as Larry Itliong Day. Now this: Itilong’s adopted hometown of Delano, which has already decided to name a park for the labor leader, will honor him with a mural to be unveiled Monday at the school where his daughter, Patty Itliong Serda, is the school librarian.
“I believe my dad is a very important piece of Delano,” she said, “because of the history that he left here and his legacy. I believe that his hard work and his passion shows in this small farming community. …. We see it every day in the fields. The kids here at our school, a lot of them, their parents are farmworkers.”
The mural, painted over nine days by Eliseo Silva and funded from a donation by Blue Shield of California, is called the Larry Itliong Story. It will be unveiled on what would have been Itliong’s 92nd birthday.
More than 4 million Filipino Americans live in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center — 1.6 million of them in California, including 16,000 in Kern County and 6,000 in Delano, where Itliong, born in the Philippines, came to prominence and is today buried. Filipino Americans are the second-largest Asian American group in the nation and the third-largest ethnic group in California after Latinos and African Americans.
If few Filipino-Americans realized it prior to his belated burst of fame, they should know this: Larry Itliong, who died in 1977 at just 63, was among their most passionate and influential voices. And now he will have a new, colorful honor in his adopted hometown.