Honoring a Proud Legacy
By Jon Melegrito
Last month’s celebration of Asian Pacific American history and heritage (APAHM) and my own participation heightened my appreciation of our community’s achievements in this country.
There was the White House Summit on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which brought together over 2000 registered participants from across the country for a day-long series of discussions and cultural performances. Within the same week, there were leadership seminars, film screenings luncheons and gala dinners. There was also a protest action. (More on this later.)
Everyone came to celebrate. And with good reason. As President Obama said in his proclamation of AAPI Heritage Month, we have “forged a proud legacy that reflects the spirit of our Nation – a country that values the contributions of everyone who calls America home.”
Right Photo: APALA Exec. Director Gregory Cendana leads a picket condemning Wal-Mart.
What immediately comes to mind are the Filipino farmworkers who came to this country in the 1920s. They may be the “Forgotten Asian Americans” (the title of Fred Cordoba’s book), but President Obama’s mention of the grape fields of Delano is a helpful reminder that Filipinos were leaders and trailblazers who fought for “equal treatment, and a better tomorrow for all Americans.”
In their honor, Filipino American union members at the Communications Workers of America (CWA) invited the community to a screening of “Delano Manongs.” It’s the story of farm labor organizer Larry Itliong and 1,500 Filipinos who collaborated with Chicano labor leader Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement. They both instigated one of the American farm labor movement’s finest hours – the Delano Grape Strike of August 1965 against California’s greedy grape workers. The solidarity among Filipino and Mexican workers was instrumental in forging the nation’s first successful farm labor union, the United Farm Workers. Although Chavez and his union got most of the credit and publicity, Filipinos played a pivotal role.
In honoring the role of Filipino workers, it is well to remember how it all began. It was the summer of 1965, in Coachella, Calif. Filipino workers went on strike demanding a 30-cent wage increase from $1.10 an hour. After 10 days of picketing, the grape growers caved in. Building on their success, they organized workers in Delano, eventually uniting with Mexican laborers to form UFW. The strike, which lasted more than five years, was a historic victory.
Just as the Chinese built the railroads, Filipinos pioneered the challenging work of organizing and building solidarity among workers across racial lines. It was one for all and all for one. It was Itliong and his comrades fighting together for a just cause. It was Filipinos reaching out to their Mexican sisters and brothers that made the United Farm Workers the powerful union it became.
I had the honor of participating in CWA’s lunchtime event by singing “Profits Enslave the World,” a song written by Philip Vera Cruz, one of the Delano leaders. The lyrics describe the America he discovered when he arrived in the 1930s, a “land of slavery” where minorities live in slums and shanty towns, oppressed by the wealthy few’s “lust for power” and “senseless greed.” Five years ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement echoed this indictment of the 1 %. Today, public officials like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are among the powerful voices condemning income inequality in this country.
In the spirit of the Delano Manongs’ fight for equal treatment, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) condemned the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) for honoring Wal-Mart.
At the annual gala ball organized by APAICS and attended by more than 600 community leaders, public officials, and corporate executives, APALA led a picket outside the Hyatt Hotel where the event was held. Several guests in their gowns and tuxedos, on their way to the hotel, briefly joined the picket line to show their solidarity. There were also cheers inside the ballroom when the emcee gave a “lift up” to the demonstrators outside.
Wal-Mart was honored, according to APAICS President and CEO S. Floyd Mori, because it “continues to demonstrate corporate leadership and support of the AAPI community.” In other words, Wal-Mart is a generous donor by funding APAICS programs, such as mentorships, scholarships and fellowships.
But APALA disagrees with APAICS’ claim that Wal-Mart “helps people around the world save money and live better.” In its statement circulated to dinner guests, APALA called the nation’s largest corporation “a fierce anti-union employer [that] represents corporate greed. Wal-Mart pays poverty wages, substandard benefits, and has a shameful record with regard to employment discrimination involving race and gender.”
“For APAICS to honor Wal-Mart is an insult to Asian Pacific American workers throughout the country, and the rich history of Asian Pacific American labor,” APALA added. “This is the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape strike when Filipino farmworkers courageously led the fight to organize farm workers in California. APAICS is insulting the legacy of Filipino farmworkers, Chinese railroad workers, Hawaiian plantation workers, New York Chinatown garment workers, and millions of other Asian Pacific American workers who have built this country.”
And that’s the way it was here in the nation’s capital during the month of May.