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Forgotten History: The fight to include Filipino American contributions to the story of the United Farm Workers Movement

Cynthia Bonta reflects on the path it took for California to include Filipino American history in its curriculum.
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, left, who led the fight as head of the AFL-CIO union local, talks with his assistant Larry Itliong, in front of union headquarters at Delano, Calif., July 28, 1967. (AP Photo/Harold Filan)

CALIFORNIA, USA — It is likely, most people will recognize the name, Cesar Chavez, but not the name, Larry Itliong. That's because Filipino American contributions to the farm labor movement have largely gone untold.

"It was up to Filipino Americans to tell our story," said Cynthia Bonta, the mother of Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Rob Bonta made history earlier this year as the first Filipino American to hold the office. His mother, an activist with the United Farm Workers Movement said his success rests on the shoulders of his ancestors.

She was a young Filipina mother of three, a scholar and an activist in the 1970s.

"We ended up in the headquarters of United Farmworkers in La Paz living in a trailer," she reflected.

Working with civil rights activist, Cesar Chavez, to give child care support to farm working families, Cynthia Bonta did not realize she was raising her children in the midst of history in the making.

"My God! If I only knew they were going to be famous one day I would have taken my picture with them," she quipped.

Years before working at the headquarters, she and her husband, fellow social justice activist Warren Bonta, volunteered at the Filipino Community Center in Delano, California. The pair did not realize it was here that it was Filipino American farmworkers who steered the fight for labor rights toward a unified path in 1965.

Led by a fiery Larry Itliong of the Agricultural Worker's organizing committee, Filipino American farmworkers, including Phillip Veracruz and Pete Velasco, walked off table-grape farms to demand wages equal to the federal minimum wage. Eight days later, Chavez's mostly Latino National Farmworkers Association joined kicking off the five-year strike.

"You know, a lot of what I know now I learned afterward," Bonta said.

It's a history she lived through but still had to seek on her own. Bonta said it shows, just how easily history can be lost. It was decades later when her son became the first Filipino American legislator in the state. The first bill he pushed through in 2013 was to ensure Filipino Americans' contributions are included in the California curriculum.

"That should inspire us as a community, especially the younger generation, that it's in their history to be able to build movements that can create change," Bonta explained.

She said the first Filipino farmworkers referred to as Manongs, or older brothers, were forgotten in American history books, and for decades, history had been distorted in the telling of the United Farm Workers Movement.

"We should also say that the reason why the grape strike succeeded, was because of the solidarity between the Mexicans and the Filipinos. We couldn't have done it without each other. Because that divide and conquer approach was always used against the farmworkers," she said.

Accurate portrayals of America's diverse immigration stories, she said, help all understand the country's rich history better.

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