March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day, a holiday in California celebrating his birthday and contributions towards the civil rights movement he fought to benefit society’s most vulnerable populations. He was born on March 31st, 1927 and was an American farmworker, labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the United Farm Workers). Many do not know that the legendary phrase of the Farmworkers’ Movement “Si, Se Puede!” wasn’t coined by Cesar Chavez, but by a woman named Dolores Huerta.
Dolores Huerta, born and raised in Stockton CA, left her job as a teacher in the early 1950s and began serving on the leadership of the Stockton Community Service Organization. She founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives, and pressed local governments for barrio improvements.
In 1955, she met the Executive Director of CSO, Cesar Chavez. They bonded immediately and realized they both had a passion for organizing farm workers. They resigned from CSO and founded the National Farm Workers Association in the spring of 1962.
Dolores Huerta was instrumental in securing aid for dependent families and disability insurance for California farm workers in 1963. She was a crucial advocate for the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. She has received numerous awards for her community service and advocacy, including the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, the Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to her by President Obama in 2012. She was the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Dolores Huerta is 90 years old and still advocating for migrant and farm workers’ rights. Californians celebrate Dolores Huerta Day on April 10th.
Larry Itliong was a Filipino-American labor organizer whose story is not as well-known as others but is just as important to our history.
It has been said that Cesar Chavez inspired the world but that Larry Itliong inspired Cesar Chavez. In an era known for civil rights movements, Itliong fought for better working conditions in a country thousands of miles from his homeland of the Philippines.
Larry Itliong, also known as “Seven Fingers,” (the tales vary about how he lost the missing three) first came to the U.S. in 1929 when he was 15, never having slept in a bed or lived in a home with electricity. Soon, during the Great Depression, he joined striking lettuce workers in Washington State; later he would can fish in Alaska and help organize a cannery and agricultural workers’ union, leading his manong “brothers” as they followed the grapes, raisins, brussels sprouts and other crops up and down the spine of California. According to his son, Johnny Itliong, Larry was an excellent card player and avid cigar smoker, spoke numerous Filipino dialects as well as Spanish, Cantonese and Japanese, and taught himself about law by attending trials.
In 1965, Larry Itliong lead a grape strike in Delano that set the stage for the boycott that would lead Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and thousands of farmworker families to create the nation’s pioneering agricultural labor union, the United Farm Workers.
The historic Delano Grape Strike led by Itliong and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee took place on September 8, 1965 and was soon joined by the Chavez-led National Farm Workers Association. Five years later, in 1966, the AWOC and NFWA merged to become the United Farm Workers, forever changing the face of agricultural labor in California.
Itliong spent his life standing up for his belief that “everyone has equal rights and justice, but you have to make that come about.” He died on Feb. 8, 1977, leaving a legacy of activism that inspires us all. Californians celebrate Larry Itliong Day on October 25th.