Friday, October 31, 2014

The Manongs: Forgotten Filipinos Who Settled In The West Coast of America Pre World War II

Filipino Proverb

An old Filipino proverb goes like this “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan”.*

An English translation would go something like: ”He who does not know where he came from will never reach his destination.”

Filipinos are all over America but seemingly they are as invisible as air. Not out of the ordinary, most would be mistaken for other Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans and even Half Whites or Half Blacks or a mix of any of these. But make no mistake, they have been living in the US for generations. Why can't we see them? It is because of their innate traits of adaptability, passivity, debt of gratitude, need to belong and not stir up the boat. All these plus their comparatively lack of national identity compared to other Asians helped made them to silently become the Forgotten Asians of America.

The Manong Generation

The number of Filipino Americans today could be four million strong, at least those who profess to be “Fil-Ams”. A small number of these mostly law-abiding and productive Filipinos are descendants of an even forgotten group of Filipino immigrants affectionately referred to as “manongs”. A “manong” is an Ilocano word one would call a respected older Filipino male. Technically, it is the term for a first-born male. But it is also used to call an older brother or any older male relative. A “manang” is the female counterpart. Take note, to most Filipinos, every other Filipino is a relative calling them accordingly as "kuya", "tay", "tito" or "lolo" (older brother, dad, uncle or grandpa) or "ate", "nay", tita" or "lola" (older sister, aunt or grandma).

Now ever since the Philippines became a territory of the US in 1899, Filipinos have started migrating to America in waves, along with other people from all over the world. Most of these early Filipino migrants arrived to become workers in Hawaii or college students in the US Mainland.

1917 Immigration Act

In 1917, the United States Congress passed a law barring migrants from Asia. Before that, only the Chinese were forbidden. The Immigration Act of 1924 then entirely limited the number of immigrants who could enter the US from any country.
People from the green zone were part of the Barred Zone, Dysfunctional, Wikimedia Commons
But because farm owners in the West Coast were always in need of dependable people to work the fields and because the Filipinos were the only “Asians” to be exempt from the 1917 law (yes because Filipinos were technically US Nationals back then) there was a huge push in the Philippine countryside to attract Filipinos who were typically less educated and well off (and easier to lure) than urban Filipinos to be that source of cheap and stable work force.

Undated photo of Manongs,
So from the 1920s to the 30s, about 100,000 Filipinos were recruited and shipped to the US to be farm workers. They were mostly teenaged able bodied Filipinos. These adventurous lads left everything behind and braved the long voyage to America.

These were the Filipinos who formed the “Manong” Generation, working in the farms of the West Coast of America and the Canneries of Alaska.

The (Not So) American Dream

With aspirations of living the American dream, their life in the U.S. didn't really pan out the way their recruiters painted it would. Worse, most of these imported laborers were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because even though life was extremely hard in America it's the same back home. And because of pride, shame, need to send money back home or for whatever personal reason they stuck it out. These "manongs" endured back-breaking work in the worse of conditions. And worst, they were oppressed from all sides.

By the 1960s, having worked for 40 to 50 years, the remaining “manongs” were in their twilight years.

Generally with no wives, no descendants, no contracts, no properties, no health plans, no retirement plans, these old honorable men decided to fight for their rights. Unjust legislation and American society forced them into situations where they regularly needed to stand up for themselves and for what is right.

For half a century they had to put up with laws and other forms of discrimination from everyone. One of the hardest they had to endure was being barred them from marrying outside their race. These shameful anti-miscegenation laws were totally repealed in 1967.

U.S States, by the date of repeal of anti-miscegenation laws:
  No laws passed
  Repealed before 1887
  Repealed from 1948 to 1967
  Overturned on 12 June 1967
Photo: Certes, Wikimedia Commons

The "manongs" were barred from voting and owning property. And they also had to endure harsh working and living conditions which could only be described as prejudicial, inhuman and criminal then and more so today.

Delano, California: The Manong's Last Stand
Larry Dulay Itliong, Wikimedia Commons

The Filipino workers were no strangers to strikes and other forms of organized labor actions as they were forced to labor organize since the 1930s. They needed to, and besides most of these men had only themselves and so they have to stick together like one huge clan.

In one of these strikes, the “manongs” working in Delano California decided to stop working and demand a pay hike which they know they deserve and have been discriminated upon for decades.

Among the most vocal Filipino organizers were Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). On the Mexican side, there were among others, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).

1965 Grape Strike

Having endured so much for so long and probably believing they have nothing else more to lose, in October 18, 1965, the “manongs” went on strike. But because the Mexican workers were being trucked in to break their strike, Larry Itliong dialogued with Cesar Chavez and they urged his fellow Mexican workers to join the "manongs" (their fellow workers) instead of siding with the farm workers and finally putting a stop to this effective farm owner tactic of breaking strikes.

After deliberations and pleadings and a week into the strike, the Mexicans joined hands with the Filipinos and then the fight went full blast. The farm owners of course did not like this at all and fought back hard. The strike and the accompanying boycott and the picketing went on for years.

In 1966 the AWOC and the NFWA merged and created the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) which is now the UFW.

1970 Collective Bargaining Agreement

Five long years after the Filipinos first started that legendary strike, the farm owners and the UFW finally reached a collective bargaining agreement and signed a landmark union contract for farm workers. 

This opened the way for other farm and other deprived workers to fight for their own rights. This continuing fight became part of the larger Civil Right Movement in America.

Not All’s Well That Ends Well For the Manongs

Despite starting and leading that strike and helping join the racial divide which separated the farm workers, the UFW became an organization all about the Chicano, Mexican or Hispanic Movement (the UFW flag back then was an Aztec symbol).  The UFW slowly turned into an organization which was all about Chicano Nationalism. This pushed the Filipinos in the background and worse they were left with the bread crumbs of the successes which they themselves help start and sacrifice for. Each year the UFW Hispanic leadership gained prominence while the Filipinos faded and were soon forgotten. Filipino leaders were forced out or resigned their positions in the union because of various reasons including lost of seniority and respect.

Today, there are no more known Delano "Manongs" still alive. There are probably no more living "manongs" anywhere else for that matter who could personally share their life story and what they had to go through. 

1974 Agbayani Village Retirement Home

The remaining “manongs” who were disenfranchised even by the very union they helped put together did win one last and lasting victory four years later --  the one thing that they were really fighting for and really needed in their retirement and twilight years. 

In 1974, Cesar Chavez and the UFW opened the much awaited 58 bed Retirement Home for the “manongs” which was planned back in 1970. The last remaining “manongs” in the area have no dependents, and the long strike left most of them too poor to support themselves.

Agbayani Village was aptly named in honor of a "manong", Paolo Agbayani who died of a heart attack while picketing a winery in Delano during the strike in 1967.

Remember the “manongs” were already bachelors well into their 60 years during the time when the strikes happened in the 1960's. And the long-drawn strike didn’t really help their retirement fund nor their health.

The last "manong" who lived in the village was Manong Fred Abad. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 87.

Like most manongs, Fred was inconspicuous, vertically challenged and weighing no more than 100 pounds. And like many "manongs", he was Ilocano, a real "manong" who left his home town in Ilocos as a teen-ager in the late 1920s. He was 17 years old at that time.

What Happened To the Other Manongs? 

With no comprehensive historical records, we really cannot say what happened to all the other "manongs" who weren't able to live out their last years at the Agbayani Village. 

Some surely passed away before and right after the strike. Some returned to the Philippines. Some moved elsewhere or to other states, especially those few who were able to get married and have children. But for most them, they are now long gone and forgotten.

As that Filipino proverb* advocates, it is really hard to see where we are heading if we don't really care to look back at where we came from and how far we've traveled.

Take Away From the Story of the Manongs

The Chicano movement, the workers unions and the Civil rights movement of today would do well to look back to that Sweltering Summer of 1965 and the five year struggle that followed. We all need to learn about, take a second look at, remember and celebrate that forgotten bunch of old, tired, mistreated, marginalized and weather-beaten group of "manongs" who only a generation ago fought with what little they have so we and the movements which followed them could stand on their shoulders and would enjoy what we might be taking for granted today.

1974 The Last of the Manongs, Agbayani Village, Lorraine Agtang

Suggested Further Reading:

The Delano Manongs: Little Known Filipino Contribution To The Chicano Movement And The Rights of US Workers & Immigrants

* Many Filipinos attribute this and other proverbs to that Greatest of Filipinos, Dr. Jose Rizal. But history does suggest that this saying has been used before Rizal’s time. Rizal did use this in his writings and because of this, people attribute it to him.

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