I remember it vividly - I was at an urban farm work party and a young white woman had gathered the group into a closing circle. She explained: "We are going to do the unity clap, a tradition from the United Farmworkers. It's called "isang bagsak."
The phase translates into Tagalog as "one down." Essentially, "If one falls, we all fall." I had done this in Filipino cultural spaces before, yet it was a first to share with a group of white folks and a smattering of people of color. Together, we did the resounding clap, closing off with the woman's call of "isang bagsak!" Speaking with her after, however, I was dismayed that she was unaware of "isang bagsak's" origins. While she associated the practice with the UFW, she didn't associate the UFW with Filipinos. It was a quiet erasure.
Today is March 31, Cesar Chavez Day. Today is needed. It's not often enough that people of color - or labor unions or farmworkers - get a commemorative holiday, a biopic, a stamp. These stories need to be honored in ways big and small. It is right to celebrate and re-center farmworkers' struggles in the public eye.
Yet there is a missing piece in the popular narratives of Cesar Chavez. Although portrayed as a Chicano-only organization, the UFW was cofounded by Chicanos and Filipinos who chose to join forces despite the divisive tactics imposed by growers. This was a powerful choice. It gave rise to a multiethnic, intergenerational movement.
In "Not Just Sour Grapes," brilliant friend and writer Jen Soriano broke down just how the promising 'Cesar Chavez' biopic failed to represent historic alliances between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers. Her article (read it!) included a simplified timeline. Among the key points:
- Since the 1920's Filipino farmworkers or manongs had organized in California's fields.
- in 1965, over 1500 Filipino farmworkers with the Agricultural Farm Workers Organizing Committee struck for 8 days before reaching out to Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association. Today, this strike is remembered as the Delano Grape Strike.
- In 1966, the AFWOC and the NFWA merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.
I grew up not knowing any of these three points, and only learned about Philip Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong, and more as an adult. We have a stake in the way these stories are told. We need more stories that break stereotypes of "apolitical Asians" and remind us that our elders were organizers, allies, and conspirators. Filipino farmworkers - along with other disenfranchised groups - put their bodies on the line for what they believed in. They were not bystanders to history.
To widen the spotlight is not to detract from Chavez's legacy. Instead, it reminds us that movements are made of people, and that when communities unite, they can build change.