DELANO (AP) — Hundreds of former and current labor activists, both Filipino and Mexican-American, flowed this weekend into the Central Valley town of Delano where 50 years ago, they launched the Delano grape strike that altered the course of American history.
Among them was Lorraine Agtang, who On Sept. 8, 1965, along with her family and other Filipino grape pickers, walked out of their fields to protest a pay cut from $1.40 to $1.25 an hour, the Sacramento Bee reported Monday.
“I was a kid, only 13,” recalled Agtang, who was born and raised in a labor camp 2 miles east of Delano. “It was midmorning when picketers showed up where we were picking grapes for Giumarra growers and my dad, Platon Agtang, said there’s a strike and we should leave.”
When Agtang saw Filipinos on the picket lines, she said, “that affected my life story - I knew the Filipinos were hard-working people not bent on civil disobedience, but it was pretty amazing when I learned they were standing up for what they wanted.”
Some were beaten and evicted from their homes; others clashed with law enforcement and Mexican strikebreakers brought in by the growers, but they stood strong.
On Sunday, the efforts of the largely Filipino and Mexican workers were commemorated with a Mass, bus tours of the historically relevant sites, films and a discussion panel.
Agtang, whose dad was Ilocano, a Filipino ethnic group, and whose mother was Mexican, said that before the strike, “the growers would pit Filipinos against Mexicans, saying the other group was working harder, so there was always this kind of competitiveness.”
By 1966, Filipinos and Mexicans had formed the still-powerful United Farm Workers.
The table grape strike succeeded where others had failed when Chavez, who led a well-publicized march from Delano to Sacramento in the spring of 1966, came up with a stroke of genius - the 1968-1970 grape boycott that spread worldwide.
“It showed powerless people they could do something,” said Philip Martin, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. “It is considered one of the most successful union boycotts ever - 12 percent of Americans said they avoided eating grapes during the boycott, and by 1970, most major grape growers had UFW contracts.”
The workers also won medical and retirement benefits as well as laws banning the use of pesticides that cause skin disorders and other maladies, Agtang said.
Before she drove to Delano, Agtang stopped at the bronze Cesar Chavez memorial across from Sacramento City Hall depicting Chavez leading two dozen protesters on a march for justice. One of them is a 13-year-old girl.
“That’s me on the statue,” Agtang said proudly, “and I’m not even dead yet.”