Wednesday, September 30, 2020


By David Bacon
Capital and Main, 10/1/20

In Fresno's barrio, the taco trucks stay open past midnight.  Young women from the neighborhood, out for fun and not ready to sleep, stand in line with a worker leaving her shift at the huge Amazon warehouse on Orange Avenue, hungry on her way home..  Inside the truck  masked cooks and servers bend and stretch to fill orders, working as hard as their customers who labor all day in fields and factories.

Masks in the taco truck are just one indication of Fresno County's alarming COVID rate, with 27,560 cases and 355 deaths reported so far.  For months the novel coronavirus has concentrated in the Latinx agricultural counties of the Central Valley.  Urban Alameda County, for instance, with a much larger population, has a significantly lower rate - 20,579 cases and 374 deaths.

Fresno, crisscrossed by irrigation canals and railroad tracks, is the working-class capital of California's San Joaquin Valley, a city where people speak Spanish as readily as English. On Fresno's main drag, Blackstone Avenue, the glowing neon names of restaurants don't bother much with English, and signs like "Central Valley's cerveza" need no translation.

If weren't for Mexicans, Fresno would never have become a city.  In the wake of the violence that engulfed Mexico during its 1910-1920 revolution, tens of thousands fled north across the border.  In Fresno they found work in the fields and homes in segregated barrios.  Then countless families were pulled off the streets as the Depression deepened, loaded into boxcars and deported.  Even U.S. citizens who looked Mexican were picked up and sent down to the border.  

Racism and anti-immigrant hysteria were only part of the reason.  Fresno in the early '30s was a city of class upheaval.  Thirty-two years before the 1965 grape strike in Delano, Mexicans rose up in an earlier vineyard rebellion -  the 1933 Fresno grape strike opened a labor war that shook California.  Strikers lost the battle in Fresno, but their union and its Communist organizers then moved 60 miles south and launched the largest farm labor strike in U.S. history.  Forty thousand cotton pickers defied grower vigilantes, despite the murder of three strikers, and won wage raises even in the heart of the Depression.

Today the street in front of the Azteca Theater is hauntingly empty at night during the pandemic.  But the oldest residents of Fresno's barrios undoubtedly remembered those earlier conflicts when Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, Dolores Huerta and a column of grape strikers stopped in front of the Azteca Theater on F Street in 1966.  The strikers were marching from Delano to Sacramento, and hundreds of local farmworkers turned out to hear Chavez speak in the street outside the theater.  

The city administration, no friend of strikers or Mexicans in those years, nevertheless feared a barrio uprising if they tried to prohibit the rally.  At their request, the Azteca's owner, Arturo Tirado, planned the march's route through the city.

The Azteca Theater was more than a convenient place to hold a rally.  It was the heart of Fresno's Mexican community.  From the time when growers first brought bracero contract workers from Mexico in 1942, the theater became their way to remember the life they'd left behind.  It showed films with Cantinflas and Dolores Del Rio and hosted singers like Agustin Lara.

Fresno Japanese-American poet, Lawson Fusao, writes:  When Teatro Azteca opened up /Right there on "F" Street /In the heart of "Chinatown,"/All us kids--"Hispanic"/And otherwise--got excited--/Because with a few coins/You could go in there/With the Wongs and the Washingtons/.../ In advanced or at least elementary Spanish,/"Hoy Cantinflas" on the marquee/meant just what it said: Laughs!"

Because Fresno is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California's radicals often met there.  In the mid-fifties it hosted the meetings of the California Democratic Council, a network of grassroots clubs that fought to end the death penalty.  The CDC took the state from the Republican Party in its seminal campaign, Sweep the State in [19]58.  The United Farm Workers holds its conventions in the city's halls.  The Communist Party held statewide meetings at the campground of the red Finns on the San Joaquin River, a few miles south of downtown.

For local leftists, however, the city was anything but welcoming.  In the early 1900s its gambling dens ran wide open.  City police chiefs used payoffs to become growers, and the Klan had a chapter inside the police department.  In 1950 Chief Ray Wallace went to prison for tax evasion, after he'd accumulated 1700 acres.  Corruption accompanied attacks on the left.  In 2003 Aaron Kilner, an activist in Peace Fresno, was exposed as a Sheriff's Department undercover spy,  Nevertheless, county sheriff Richard Pierce said in a prepared statement that the department would continue surveillance as part of its "anti-terrorism" activity.

Despite official hostility, generations of radicals have called Fresno home. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan migrant with roots in Mexico's leftwing social movements, started the Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People and led strikes when he arrived in Fresno in the 1980s.  The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations succeeded OPEO, organizing indigenous Mexican migrants from an office in an old building on Tulare Street in the heart of Fresno's scruffy downtown.

Dominguez, before his untimely death, trained a Zapotec immigrant, Sarait Martinez, chosen this past week to head the binational center.  Martinez, an indigenous cultural activist, put her training to work helping Mixtec and Triqui migrant strikers form a new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.   Myrna Martinez, from a storied family of Mexican leftists, joins community struggles of Southeast Asian and indigenous Mexican migrants at the Pan Valley Institute.

Dominguez and radical Argentinian journalist Eduardo Stanley organized migrants through radio broadcasts at the community station, KFCF, which shares Fresno as home base with Radio Bilingue, a network of Spanish-language community stations across the U.S.  Stanley edits Community Alliance, one of the longest-lived community newspapers in California.  

Mike Rhodes, who, with other Fresno activists, co-founded Community Alliance, one of California's longest-lived community newspapers in California, spent 18 years writing articles denouncing the city for its abuse of homeless people, winning a $2.3 million class action suit in an effort to stop it.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2019 Fresno had a larger percentage of "unsheltered" homeless people than any other city in the country - that is, people sleeping on sidewalks, in cars or in places the government calls "not suitable for human habitation."  Last April Rhodes interviewed Dez Martinez of the Homeless in Fresno advocacy group, who accused police of routinely destroying homeless encampments.  "They do this daily," she told him.

Rhodes accuses current Fresno mayor and former police chief Jerry Dyer of seeking "the legal authority and enough officers to make homeless people's lives a living hell."  Yet in spite of obstacles, political change may be coming.  Mike Rhodes Day was declared by the city council in August, 2018, and a new Latino majority was elected that November.

Nevertheless, anger over Fresno's long history of discrimination, not unlike that which sparked the upsurges of 1933 and 1966, inspired Super_Tatt2's mural remembering Vanessa Guillen, the soldier murdered at her Texas base in April.  The city's radical artists in the Barrio Art Collective charge, "Many people in the Valley do not want new jails or more cops, they do not want more oppression or more destitution, they do not want to see homeless people in the streets struggling every day ... They want art, music and freedom."

Today the city's forlorn iron gate, which welcomed visitors when Highway 99 was a two-lane road, rises above an anonymous rail crossing, warehouses on one side and the freeway frontage road on the other.  Just down the street from this relic of old Fresno hundreds of people sleep on sidewalks and in vacant lots.  

Further out, along the Mill Ditch canal, one homeless man, Adam, has built his shelter next to a fence along the levee.  There Steve, another unhoused individual, pulls his cart loaded with blankets to the place he'll sleep at night.  Red and brown Fresno is still a bare-knuckle, hardscrabble city.

Sunday, September 6, 2020


Anand Singh, President of UNITE HERE Local 2, interviewed by David Bacon
New Labor Forum, 9/3/2020

Anand Singh, Nicholas Javier and Lisa Kaid sit down in the middle of Fourth Street, in coordinated national demonstrations and civil disobedience in many cities during the Marriott strike.  
When the novel coronavirus crisis hit, hotel workers everywhere were among the first to feel the massive job losses that are now worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.  In city after city, the women and men who clean rooms, make beds and cook food found themselves wondering if they and their unions would survive.  In April 2020, David Bacon interviewed Anand Singh, President of UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco, about that question. Singh's vision of the COVID crisis as a trial by fire, from which the labor movement can emerge stronger, is a welcome antidote to feeling powerless in the face of the virus.   

An important force in San Francisco, UNITE HERE Local 2 has successfully organized almost all the city's Class A hotels, through two decades of turbulent strikes and lockouts.  Its diverse membership of African American, white, Latino and Asian-American workers has made noisy drum-banging picket lines a vital part of the city's working-class culture. In 2018, UNITE HERE mounted a nationwide strike against the giant Marriott Corporation. Local 2 stayed out longest-- 61 days--and achieved a contract setting a new standard for the city of San Francisco.  

The strike won San Francisco hotel workers a dollar and a half wage increase each year for four years, with the employer continuing to pay for healthcare costs.  Housekeepers won reductions in the number of rooms cleaned each day.  The contract controls the introduction of technology in the workplace, and provides greater protection from sexual harassment and  immigration-based discrimination.  The strike stopped Marriott from contracting out room service and food service, and in San Francisco, laid-off workers can go into a pool for rehire at other hotels.

Striking Local 32 members, pictured here, remind us of the common struggles shared by workers, even in the time of COVID. 
After two weeks on strike against Marriott Hotels, hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, march through downtown San Francisco.
DB:  When did the Union first realize what was going to happen with COVID-19?

 We were tracking the news, seeing the events unfold in China late last year.  A large portion of our membership emigrated from China, and they travel back and forth, so the virus was a topic of much discussion. It all came to a head in late January, when many of our members took their vacation and traveled back to China for the Lunar New Year celebrations.

Several members went to Wuhan.  When one went back to work at the Marriott, there was an outcry -that she'd been allowed to work among everyone when she had just been there. I was poring over CDC guidelines on testing and quarantine, and Marriott ended up asking the worker to go home.  The hotel paid her for 14 days, to shelter in place. I don't believe she was ever tested, and once the 14 days were up, she came back to work.  

As the crisis was worsening, we started to talk with our members about CDC guidelines and testing, which wasn't available at that point.  We tried to impress early on that this is not specific to Chinese workers or Chinese people.  This is a global crisis.  Our members got it.  Many folks in San Francisco tried to get in front of that xenophobia and the backlash against the Chinese community.  I'm sure it exists here in the Bay Area, but we have experience talking about it here, and that made a difference.

Things really started to hit in February, with cancellations of large events.  Once "shelter-in-place" went into effect, it upended everything. Every day we got notices from hotels about closures and layoffs.  

As business dropped off, hotels were not taking new bookings.  Occupancy fell to 20 percent, and then into single digits. Then they were closing entirely.

Food and beverage workers were the first to go.   Then housekeeping.  Lobbies and public areas went down to maybe a doorman to manage traffic at the doors.  The Hilton Union Square has 1900 rooms and 900 to 1000 workers.   They started the year at ninety to a hundred percent occupancy, and essentially everybody was fully employed. After shelter in place, it collapsed to about 30 workers. They ended up closing their doors altogether.

The big hotels had never had to close their doors. They don't even have a mechanism to lock them, so they had to board them up. The Fairmont Hotel had stayed open during the 1906 San Francisco fire and earthquake. Now they've closed the doors for the first time.  
Jessica Etheridge is searched in the middle of Fourth Street outside the Downtown Marriott, as she and others were arrested in an act of civil disobedience during the Marriott strike.

DB:  What was the impact on hotel workers and the union?

It was a real crisis for our members, especially the uncertainty around health care.  During the pandemic, we secured members' health care benefits through our trust fund. Without true health care reform in our country and a single-payer system, we're at the mercy of insurance companies and the medical-industrial complex, so our rank-and-file leadership has made funding benefits a priority, and we had substantial reserves.  

We demanded that the hotel industry step up and make contributions themselves to take care of their employees.  We were met with silence; no commitment to continue people's benefits.  So we made a decision to draw down some of those reserves until the end of July, and everybody's benefits are extended through then.  

 They didn't offer sick pay or continued wages either.  They simply gave people layoff notices and said see you later. Some hotels wanted workers to use their accrued time and cash out their vacation, but that's workers' money.   If they're forced to use it now, they will have no other means to survive.  Marriott Corporation offered pay to their non-union employees, and some members asked me, 'What about us?"

We're trying to figure out how to be effective in this moment.  It's going to require us to devise a campaign and engage in tactics we normally don't use.  One of the problems is that we don't have the ability to congregate.  

We are still finding our way.  We started with large conference calls and taped video messages to our larger membership on YouTube. That was insufficient because there was no real interaction. Then we began conducting Zoom meetings in small groups with our committee leaders, hotel by hotel. Some of our members have taped short videos, and we've created what we call a digital delegation to members of Congress.  They can hear workers' voices as they consider stimulus packages and corporate bailouts.  We've had some measure of success, although not nearly enough to make sure workers have a voice.
Delia Medina and other workers and supporters got arrested on Labor Day in front of the St. Francis Hotel, at the beginning of the union contract campaign that led to the strike and lockout in 2004.

DB:  What are the demands you're making on the industry?

Most important, we need continuation of health care.  I wish we lived in a country where healthcare was a right for every person, but that's not the case.  As long as we're within this system, employers have a responsibility.

Number two, when business starts to come back and the hotels reopen, we're concerned about the health and safety of our members.  They must get proper supplies and personal protective equipment and training to  use it, as well as cleaning in line with CDC and Department of Public Health recommendations.  

While we're still not at full employment, work should be offered on a voluntary basis by seniority. Some members may choose not to work and would rather be on unemployment.  They might fear for their own safety or somebody else in their home, or maybe they're part of a vulnerable community.
When things do return to as normal as they can be, our members' livelihood should also return to normal.  During the 9/11 and 2008 crises, the employers said we all had to share the pain.  But when things returned to normal, they kept staffing levels where they were during the crisis. They capitalized on crisis, like war profiteers.  Now they're pandemic profiteers.  We want an assurance that when things return to normal our members share in those gains.

In the models we see coming out of Europe right now, the government essentially takes over certain employers for a period of time. That leads to stability. When the crisis abates, the workers are still on the payroll. They're secure and can be plugged back in and start working again.  

But that's not good enough for U.S. companies.  They are lobbying for corporate bailouts with no strings attached.  They want to be able to pay their lenders and enrich themselves.  Over the last several years, all they've cared about is returning dividends to their shareholders and stock buybacks to inflate the worth of their companies.    Survival of the companies is important.  We understand that.  But they have no regard for their employees.  They see them as disposable.

Undocumented workers especially have very little to fall back on.  Employers have a real responsibility to step up for them, whether or not they want to acknowledge who's been doing the work, day in and day out.
Workers at the Fairmount wait to find out if they're going to work, as the lockout begins.

DB:  The union also includes workers in the airline kitchens.  Aren't they considered essential workers?

Airline catering is the largest segment of our membership that continues working.  Hundreds of our members are still in airline kitchens preparing food. They are clearly essential workers and at risk every day of contracting the virus and passing it on to co-workers. Yet most don't have health care to cover their family members.

Several tested positive for COVID-19.  One worker went on a ventilator, in an induced coma.  When she came out of the coma, she discovered that her father, who lived at home with her, had also contracted COVID-19 and had passed away.

We say that essential workers are heroes.  Applauding their efforts is just lip service when you don't provide them with what they need.  Health care would cost just a fraction of the bailout money companies are receiving from the government.  Unfortunately, the agenda has been hijacked by corporations looking to enrich themselves.  It's all a cash grab.

American Airlines, the kitchens' biggest client, was one of the companies with its hand out. They got money, but I haven't heard they passed any on to the kitchens.  I don't believe subcontractors got any of it.  We constantly get shuffled around in the shell game of "it's not our responsibility." Workers are caught in the crossfire.
Lupe Chavez, a leader of Local 2, makes up a bed at the Hilton.   

DB:  Some Local Two members are now working in hotels that are being used to house people who were living on the streets.  What are they saying about that?

About two weeks prior to the stay-at-home order, the city told us they were planning a large-scale quarantine operation, using hotels to shelter individuals who couldn't otherwise be isolated.  The first question folks had was, "Am I going to be forced to work?"  They have the right to say no without being disadvantaged or their unemployment benefits cut off. There are folks who opted not to work in that setting, but hundreds of our members are ready and willing. So far, we haven't had to go beyond those who normally work in each hotel to staff them.

Over the phone we worked out an agreement for our members to make sure that anybody in an environment with COVID-positive patients would be protected in every way possible.  We have a number of hotels now set up as quarantine facilities, and that agreement ensures our members get all their PPE and supplies.

In the quarantine hotels, three meals are provided a day, so you have cooks and dishwashers.  A room server delivers those meals but they don't actually talk to patients.  They leave the meal at the door and knock.  Workers clean public spaces, over and over, using enhanced cleaning measures.  Before our members actually enter any rooms, they have to be sanitized by Department of Public Health special crews.

I asked one member, a bellman, how he felt.  He said, "Look, when I get to the hotel everything is fine. They give us what we need, the masks, the gloves.  We get trained by nurses. But I'm scared every day riding the bus to my job. I don't know if I'm going to get the virus and take it back home to my wife and my kids.  That's what scares me."  That really got to me.  There's so much beyond what we can control in an agreement.  

In the first few days of shelter-at-home, we called our entire membership, over 12,000 members, to see how they're doing. We asked if they or somebody they were living with had contracted the virus.  About 30 people said yes, and we've been following up since. A lot of folks have recovered, but one member died.  He worked at the ballpark, and his wife was also on a respirator.

Certainly there are hundreds more that have likely contracted the virus, whether they're symptomatic or not.  We still don't have adequate testing. But we've been demanding on-site testing at quarantine hotels, and it's now available there. 
The hands of a hotel housekeeper.  This is one of several photographs taken during union contract negotiations in 1999, to show hotel operators that making beds with the new thick mattresses took a toll on the hands and bodies of workers.

DB:  What do you expect when shelter-in-place ends?

There's going to be a return to normalcy for a lot of the world, but not for our members.  Tourism has been hit hard and that's going to continue for some time. When business does return, workers must be able to come back to their jobs. The companies will make a case that there's no money.  Our response is that they've done quite well over the last ten years and are not destitute.  They have adequate means to provide health care to workers, to make sure they are safe and secure.  

The crisis has had a real financial impact on the union. Over 90% of our members are laid off and aren't required to pay their union dues.  We're working with our staff on how to put people on workshare for a while.  We told our top rank-and-file leaders that we're strapped, and we expect them to step up.

To a person, our staff and leaders, in their bones, love and believe in this organization.  They're not going to allow it to stumble or perish.  Everybody's committed to making sure we get through this.

I was reading a book on the history of HERE published years ago, called Union House Union Bar.  There's a picture in it from shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire of the temporary union office.  It's a tent at the corner of 7th and Mission Street. The world has collapsed, everything has burned to the ground, and yet members didn't let their union disappear. They erected a tent and kept the union running.   Ten years later, in 1916, those same members ran a general strike for the 8-hour workday.

We're resilient. It's baked into our DNA.   This moment is a challenge certainly, but I'm confident in our ability to weather this storm and come out stronger.

We're not in control of events - we're dealing with a virus that is indiscriminate and can strike anyone at any time.  But there are things we can control. We can control the fact that we will not lie down and accept peanuts from a company like the Marriott Corporation, because that's what they've offered us.  We're going to be a fighting union coming out of this. We're going to make demands of this industry like we never have before.

Our union has to speak out, not just for members of Local 2, but for all hotel workers in the city, union and non-union.  Nobody else is going to shoulder that burden. It's challenging to do it while we're sheltered.  Once that order is lifted, it'll make things slightly easier, but we've got a long road ahead of us.

Between reopening and our contract expiration in 2022, it's  going to be a period of protracted struggle. We're going to have to fight day in and day out on the shop floor to get back what we had in years past.  Workers everywhere will have to fight to get back what we're losing.    It can be a great opportunity if we come together.  Working people will be spoiling for the chance to fight back. The pandemic profiteers will overreach as they always do.  That's a moment for us. The power of working people in this country could grow in a way we haven't seen in decades, if we seize it and organize and come together.
Hotel workers listen to UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh explain the terms of the contract settlement ending the Marriott strike before workers vote on it.

After 61 days on the picket lines UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh explains the terms of the contract settlement ending the Marriott strike before workers vote on it.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

A CENTURY PICKING GRAPES - Why the Census Matters in Poplar

A CENTURY PICKING GRAPES - Why the Census Matters in Poplar

 Filipino farmworkers pick table grapes in a field near Poplar, in California's San Joaquin Valley. Annie Domingo came from Laoag, in Ilocos Norte province of the Philippines, 43 years ago.

 Family migration has kept the Filipino community in Tulare County alive. The American Community Survey, which is based on the U.S. Census, says there are 7,522 Filipinos in Tulare County -- an undercount, according to community organizers at Poplar's Larry Itliong Resource Center. Today the immigration policy that has made survival possible is under threat from the Trump administration, which has suspended all family visa applications until the end of the year. Trump advisors like Stephen Miller openly call for permanently ending family migration.
Just as threatened is the U.S. Census itself. President Trump has ordered an end to the census count three weeks ahead of time, making an accurate count in Poplar and Tulare County of Filipino and Mexican farmworkers much more difficult. "The Census is critical to us because it shows our desperate need for family unification, as well as the extent of the poverty here," explains Mari Perez, cofounder of the Larry Itliong center.
Before 1965, when family reunification became the basis of U.S. immigration policy, growers' need for labor drove migration from the Philippines.  Nearly a century ago brown hands planted the first table grape seedlings in the alluvial soil of the San Joaquin Valley. In Tulare and Kern counties, the hands of the first Filipino migrants cultivated and pruned the vines of the landowners - Croatians like Marin Caratan and Marko Zaninovich, and the Italian Joe DiGiorgio. When summer came, Filipino hands picked their grapes.
From those early years, that grape harvest has flourished. Last year's record crop, worth $2.14 billion, was grown on 83,000 California acres, almost a third of it in Tulare County alone. Yet little of that wealth reaches the people who pick the fruit.   The American Community Survey documents the per capita income of a Tulare County resident - $20,421 per year, compared to a U.S. average of $32,621. A quarter of Tulare's people live below the poverty line.  The survey shows that over 32,000 Tulare County residents are farmworkers; according to the US Department of Labor the average annual income of a farmworker is between $17,500 and $20,000.  

Today most families working among the grapevines are Mexican. But in some fields you still hear people speaking quietly in Ilocano as they snip the vines, prune out the bad grapes, and carefully lay each bunch in a box. They are the fourth and fifth generation of Filipinos making a living in the table grapes.
This August one crew picking in a vineyard a few miles outside of Poplar included townspeople from Laoag, Ilocos' capital city. This is Annie Domingo's 43rd year working the grape harvest. She arrived from the Philippines in 1977, and went to work at 15. Picking next to her was Adelina Asuncion, who also came from Laoag that same year.


Teresita Mateo came from Laoag, in Ilocos Norte.


 Adelina Asuncion arrived from Laoag in 1977.


Robinson Cadiz, another immigrant from Laoag, picks the bad grapes out of the bunch.


Victor Tabino takes bunches from the tubs, puts them in plastic bags, and packs them into boxes.

Poverty was the condition of Filipinos from the beginning. The first generation of manongs (a term of respect for older Filipino men) arrived from the Philippines in the 1920s, and found a place to live in growers' labor camps. By the 1940s DiGiorgio alone ran three Sierra Vista camps in Tulare County. His barracks housed 450 men, organized by the towns they came from, mostly in the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Bohol.

The Caratans and DiGiorgios needed Filipino hands in their vineyards, but wanted only workers who didn't bring families with them.  When the manongs were recruited in the 1920s, only men could leave the islands to work in Hawaii and on the Pacific Coast. After crossing the Pacific, they found that anti-miscegenation laws prohibited them from marrying non-Filipinas. The labor camps held only men, who traveled in work crews from ranch to ranch in California, or up to Alaska's salmon canneries.
According to Poplar resident Gina Lacambacal, "A lot of those Filipino men weren't allowed to get married because [of] the racism. There were no Filipina women to marry, and [the growers] did not want them marrying others. So they never got married."
Mexican migrants fared little better. The two decades after World War II were the years of the bracero program. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican men were brought to the U.S. They too lived in labor camps, and were sent back across the border once their seasonal labor was done.
It took a civil rights movement and the Delano grape strike to end this system. While Freedom Riders were breaking the back of segregation in the South, Chicano and Filipino activists tore down the immigration barriers against families. In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act finally made it possible for people living in the U.S. to petition for visas for family members. "My mom and dad came here straight from the Philippines, because my grandparents petitioned for them," Lacambacal remembers. "Then I was born here."

The 1965 law had a huge impact, far beyond Tulare County.  Today the number of Filipinos in California has grown to 1,651,933, and more than four million nationally.  In 1930 and 1940 the Census counted just over 45,000 Filipinos living in the U.S.  In those decades, while growers could recruit workers, a quota system barred legal migration of families from non-European countries.

"Towns like Poplar are still small, but they are where the Filipino community started, and today people still come to the U.S. through them, " explains Lillian Galedo, former director of Filipino Advocates for Justice in Oakland.  "If that first generation of Filipino farmworkers in places like Poplar hadn't fought to survive, we would neven have won the law and our commmunity wouldn't be here today."  


 Larry Itliong. Photo by Bob Fitch, courtesy of the Bob Fitch Archives, Special Collections, Stanford University.

Larry Itliong, for whom the Poplar center is named, was one of the strongest advocates for changing the immigration system. After coming from the Philippines in the 1930s,  Itliong began organizing farmworkers.  He believed unions would give them the political and economic power to end the omnipresent discrimination and segregation facing Filipinos, Mexicans and African Americans, especially in rural California.
During the hard decades before and after World II , Filipinos were the backbone of a series of unions, which challenged racism as well as poverty. Often their strikes were met with violence. In Pixley, a few miles west of Poplar, a caravan of 40 armed growers shot down two cotton strikers in 1933, while Highway Patrolmen looked on. Later the Associated Farmers organized violence against other strikes.
By 1965 Itliong and many manongs were seasoned radicals. According to historian Dawn Mabalon, "Many members of the Filipino union were veterans of the strikes of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and were tough leftists."

That year Itliong led a strike in the Coachella Valley, demanding and winning a wage raise from $1.25 to $1.40 an hour. When the grape harvest reached Delano Filipino workers demanded the same raise. Doug Adair, a young activist then living in the Linnell Labor Camp near Visalia, remembers, "The traditional way Filipino crews went on strike was not with picket lines, but with a sit-in at the camp. They just didn't go to work."

After two weeks Itliong appealed to Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association to join the strike.  The NFWA's Mexican members agreed, and in the five years of the grape strike that followed the United Farm Workers was born.

Filipinos paid a high price.  The growers evicted them from the camps - a heavy blow. "There was no home to go back to," Adair remembers. " "The camp was the home." United Farm Workers cofounder Dolores Huerta was shocked at the ensuing violence. "Some were beaten up by growers who would shut off the gas and lights and water," she recalled.
The historic 1965 grape strike basically ended the camp system in California, as growers eventually closed almost all of them. According to the National Park Service, which preserves sites from the historic strike, DiGiorgio shut the Sierra Vista camps in retaliation for "organizing activities of the United Farm Workers Union."


SAN JOAQUIN DELTA, CA - Very little privacy in the bathroom of an abandoned labor camp.


SAN JOAQUIN DELTA, CA - An abandoned labor camp.

Leaving the camps brought huge changes for the Filipinos. It made them town residents and helped end their isolation. Itliong himself ran for Delano City Council two years after the strike started, calling for raising farm wages.
By then a few manongs had been able to return to the Philippines, bringing wives back to California. Some went to other states to marry white and Mexican women. At the time the immigration law changed, "The manongs were all supporting nephews and nieces back in the Philippines," Adair says. "Finally the door opened so they could come."  

Still, family migration still hasn't been easy. It took Lacambacal's older brothers more than 20 years to get their visas because of the system's long backlogs.  Another brother had to stay unmarried for years in the Philippines, since married children lose their visa preference.  He could only marry his wife once he arrived in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Filipino families grew in Tulare County. When she was growing up, Lacambacal says, people in Poplar rented homes from the local pawnshop owner. "Our house wasn't very well built. It was ancient, but you had a roof over your head. That's all that mattered."
And as the farmworker movement grew, activists pushed for better housing. Brad McAllister, working for the American Friends Service Committee in Tulare County, helped convince Congress to make Self Help housing loans available to farmworkers for the first time.
"We moved into this house in 2004," Lacambacal remembers. "Self Help provided the materials and it was up to us to put it up. Sometimes if we couldn't work on our own house people would come and help. All the houses in this neighborhood were built with Self-Help."

Self Help, and the Farm Labor Committee from which it came, relied on Census data demonstrating the extent of poverty to show the need for funding the loans.  The Census today shows the impact of home ownership for Tulare County residents.  Rent takes more than a third of the income of almost half the county's 56,000 renters.  When people can buy homes, however, far fewer wind up paying that much of their income on mortgages.  


POPLAR, CA - Baby Lhiann Lacambacal with her grandparents Reginaldo and Gloria.


POPLAR, CA - Reginaldo Lacambacal and his wife Gloria came from the Philippines 20 years ago, after his father petitioned for him. They've worked in the fields all those years. During the coronavirus crisis Reginaldo wears a mask around his neck.


POPLAR, CA - The Lacambacal family. From left, Gloria, Reynaldo, Giyahna, Reginaldo, Eddie and Eufronio. In front, Lhiann and Jenika Gwen.


POPLAR, CA - Gloria Lacambacal.


POPLAR, CA - Giyahna fixes the hair of Jenika Gwen, while she eats grapes just brought back from work.

Today three generations live in the house on Walker Road -- the legacy of all the work, the strikes and evictions, and the long journey from the Philippines. To ensure California students value this history, Assembly member Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), California's first Filipino legislator, wrote a bill in 2013, putting Filipino American history into school curricula. A second bill created an annual statewide Larry Itliong Day.
Four blocks over from Walker Road, the Census enumerators meet in the Larry Itliong Resource Center conference room. Every day they go out to try to finish the count before the new deadline. While they're out, the center's two organizers, Mari Perez and Arturo Rodriguez, box up food for hungry families who come, these days, from towns 30 and 40 miles away.

"The Census is important to us because it shows the way our community has bnefited from the family unification principle of the 1965 law, " Galedo says.  "Yet the Census clearly shows Filipinos in rural counties like Tulare still are very poor.  Without this evidence, it is much harder to advocate for social change that can help them."

"We cannot afford to be invisible," Perez emphasizes. "Today the census matters. Our survival depends on it."


POPLAR, CA - Reginaldo Lacambacal talks with Arturo Rodriguez and Mari Perez, organizers at the Larry Itliong Resource Center.

Sunday, August 23, 2020



Photographs by David Bacon


As night falls in Fresno, shooting stills for a video is like being inside a Love and Rockets comic by the brilliant Los Bros Hernandez.  If they were still drawing maybe these pictures would inspire them.  One can only hope.