Filipino American History Month: Lessons from the Delano Grape Strike & Boycott - Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation

Filipino American History Month: Lessons from the Delano Grape Strike & Boycott


Rowena Capuno and Adriana Castro, CELF Educators and PD Facilitators

With the end of Hispanic Heritage Month and in the midst of Filipino American History Month, we want to reflect on a moment of cross-cultural collaboration in our history with the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. Though this event took place almost 60 years ago, its impact and legacy can be seen today.

This year, there have been a multitude of labor strikes in the United States with an estimated 453,000 workers involved in 312 strikes, according to Johnnie Kallas, Ph.D. candidate and project director of Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker.  Employees are striking across various industries–such as transportation, entertainment, healthcare, and hospitality–fighting for higher wages amid inflation, healthcare and pension benefits, and better working conditions. Unions and collective bargaining are major threads of the American fabric, and they signal a fight for survival and sustainability not only of individuals but of many intersecting communities regardless of one’s origin. At CELF, we ground ourselves in sustainability being an intersection of the three Es–environment, equity, and economics. Sustainability is oftentimes spoken about only through the environmental lens, but through storytelling, we aim to shed light on social equity and economics as major factors in this work for sustainability.  And we look to our rich histories of fighting for survival and sustainability in the United States. This is one story of that struggle.

For many Filipino immigrants in America in the first half of the 1900s, work consisted of migrating up and down the West coast to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables for different growers and farms. This labor shaped the California economy as its produce was sent all sold all over the world. Though the growers prospered, living and working conditions for farm workers were tough:  8-12 hours in heat, exposure to the elements, low wages of 70 cents to $1.20 per hour, tight housing dorms, and nothing to say of benefits such as healthcare or pensions.  In 1965, Filipino farm workers, or manongs, went on strike in the Coachella Valley after learning that farmers were paying some workers $1.40 an hour while paying Filipino workers $1.25. This strike was led by the American Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and one of their leaders, a Filipino named Larry Itliong.  After ten days of striking, farmers agreed to the workers’ demands of $1.40 per hour and 25 cents per box of grapes.  After this success and the harvest, the workers went north to Delano but found growers were refusing to give this same wage.  

On September 7, 1965, hundreds of AWOC members gathered in Filipino Hall in Delano to negotiate with the growers, but the growers never showed up. After much discussion among the group, consisting of mainly Filipinos, and some Black, Arab, Puerto Rican, Mexican and white workers, Itliong called a vote on whether or not to strike.  Everyone stood up in favor–it was a unanimous decision; they would be going on strike.  The very next day AWOC members walked off fields to strike on the picket line, and this time it was for more than wages, it would include the right to unionize as well as better working conditions and benefits.  After a couple weeks of the strike and AWOC members being met with intimidation and violence from farm guards, Itliong realized that success would be more achievable if two of the biggest groups of farm workers–Filipinos and Mexicans–united in solidarity.  Itliong was already seeing that farmers were hiring other groups during this strike, which was undermining its goal.  Itliong approached Cesar Chavez, a prominent leader in the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and asked Chavez for them to join the strike.  At first, Chavez did not feel they were ready but agreed to bring it to the group for a vote.  Over a thousand NFWA workers met for discussion, including Dolores Huerta, another organizer who Itliong had known from his time organizing in Stockton, CA.  After discussion, Chavez spoke about joining Filipino strikers in solidarity as the outcome could benefit all workers.  The crowd voted and again a unanimous decision was made–the NFWA would strike with the AWOC. Led by Chicano and Filipino organizers such as Chavez, Itliong, Ben Gines, Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and Philip Vera Cruz, they pushed for new contracts, including higher wages and better working conditions, with powerful California growers by initiating a strike across ten grape vineyards near Delano, California and staging a nationwide grape boycott.

Cesar Chavez & Larry Itliong

The movement was organized around the premise that the farm workers’ struggle was part of a much broader movement for civil rights. United Farm Workers leaders turned to Americans for help, asking them to boycott grapes in support of their fight for higher pay and better working conditions. At the height of the boycott, 17 million Americans participated. Boycotters stopped buying grapes, picketed stores that sold nonunion grapes, and spread the word about the cause. Many civil rights organizations also contributed to the movement. During the strike, organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), along with student activists from the Bay Area, arrived in Delano to offer support, drawing parallels between the Jim Crow South and rural California in the fight for racial justice. The NAACP even distributed flyers urging Americans to not buy California grapes. After 5 long years and with the help of consumers, civil rights groups, and labor organizations, the UFW won contracts with most California grape growers by the summer of 1970.

This story of collaboration is relevant today as it reminds us that the mission to create a brighter future cannot be achieved by just one group or person. As Terry Tempest Williams said, “Collaboration is the only way forward.” This is at the heart of what CELF does, as we collaborate with many organizations, corporations, and learning institutions to achieve our mission of establishing sustainability as an integral part of every child’s K-12 learning experience. When doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that each of us have our own perspectives influenced by our individual experiences. Therefore we must be vigilant to any blindspots we may have. In seeking partnerships, we look to work with people who have a similar mission to CELF, however we challenge ourselves to embrace discomfort in these relationships, when we encounter differences. With support from supporters like PNC Bank and GHD, this year we’ve started offering microgrants to our participating teachers that they can use to purchase classroom supplies, cover transportation costs, and enhance learning experiences. We’ve also worked with non-profit and government organizations like SPLASh and SLC Center for the Urban River to bring green experiences to students and teachers. We’ve collaborated with higher learning institutions, like University of Houston Clear Lake, Lone Star College Kingwood, and New York University to host our summer institutes, where we work with teachers on how to implement student driven civic science projects. 

To truly achieve the goals of sustainability, we must recognize that no single organization or individual can do it alone. We must come together, forging partnerships and collaborations with diverse people, organizations, and perspectives. By uniting our knowledge, resources, and passion, we can pave the way for a greener, more sustainable world, one where the principles of environmental stewardship are ingrained in every child’s education and in the actions of every person and institution. In the spirit of cooperation, we can create a legacy of environmental awareness and responsibility that will endure for generations to come.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic or teaching it to your students, check out our sources below.

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