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More Than Cesar Chavez: Remembering the Forgotten Leaders of the Farmworkers’ Movement

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Dolores Huerta. Larry Itliong. Philip Vera Cruz. These forgotten leaders of the ‘60s farmworkers’ labor movement lie in the shadows while America honors Cesar Chavez Day on March 31. While Chavez’s contributions of leading one of the major organizations involved in the movement and working to negotiate labor contracts should not be forgotten, the efforts of these under-appreciated leaders of the movement must be recognized. Highlighting a singular individual with a problematic past isn’t entirely representative of the hundreds of farmworkers who made the movement what it was. 

The farmworkers’ movement started in the early ‘60s when laborers in California decided to protest the terrible working conditions they faced. Farmworkers were subjected to extremely low wages, inadequate food and shelter, little to no access to bathrooms or running water and exposure to dangerous chemicals. 

Chavez rose to prominence as the co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Huerta in 1962. Three years later, he joined the Delano Grape Strike, where Filipino American field workers organized under the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), led by Itliong. Together, the two organizations merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union, creating the largest farmworkers’ union in the nation. These leaders continued to work together for years, eventually forcing labor contracts that secured better wages and working conditions for farmers. 

While Chavez is famous for these contributions, there is also a problematic and contradictory past behind these highlights. Chavez infamously criticized illegal immigration, even pushing a campaign against illegal immigration and reporting some to immigration officers. His style of leadership with UFW was described as dictatorial, adamant against his dissenters and prioritizing the dominance of Mexican farmworkers rather than compromising with other ethnic groups like Filipinos. In fact, Chavez even traveled to the Philippines and accepted an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos, causing heavy disapproval from Filipino leaders. These controversies of one figure may discredit and distract from the farmworkers’ movement as a whole, proving why an entire movement should not have just one figurehead. 

Cesar Chavez is the face of the farm labor movement, but history shows there are many leaders whose accomplishments are overlooked. 

Huerta is a Chicana who initially became involved in the Stockton farming community and helped organize alongside Chavez. She devoted her life to activism, playing an integral role in negotiating contracts for UFW and other workers’ unions. She became a lobbyist to improve the lives of farmworkers. Even at 92 years old, her work continues today as she advocates for women’s rights. Huerta coined the phrase “Si se puede,” translating to “Yes we can” in English, and she should receive the recognition she rightfully deserves for living up to her promise of dedication.

Itliong was a Filipino immigrant who worked various jobs across the country, including serving on a U.S. Army ship during World War II. In 1965, as leader of the AWOC, he joined hundreds of other Filipino farmworkers in being the first to walk out of the Delano Vineyards, sparking the Delano Grape Strike. AWOC reached out to NFWA for support and Chavez, though he was reluctant at first, joined the strike a week later. After his work with the UFW, Itliong resigned due to concerns about the direction of the union along with the lack of support for the aging generation of Filipino workers. Though his work with UFW was over, he continued to fight for workers’ rights. He organized unions in Brazil and Chile and worked with Vera Cruz to establish the Agbayani Village, a retirement community for Filipino farm workers. Itliong’s life-long work should be remembered and not overshadowed by other prominent leaders.

Like Huerta and Itliong, Vera Cruz was heavily involved in the farmworkers’ movement as one of the main leaders of the Delano Grape Strike. He also later served as UFW vice president. Though Vera Cruz resigned from UFW years later like Itliong, he was still active in labor rights and union issues during his lifetime. Many of his contributions are left out in discussions of the farm labor movement, often eclipsed by Chavez and even Itliong. 

Huerta, Itliong and Vera Cruz deserve just as much recognition as Chavez. We can still appreciate Chavez’ contributions while honoring the work of these leaders and many others that are often buried behind the legacies of more prominent figures. When discussing social movements, it’s important to honor everyone that participated in the movement, not just the main figures. 

It’s valuable to also look further into the farmworkers’ movement because there are many more leaders and everyday individuals who advanced labor rights that weren’t remembered by history. The general lack of knowledge about the farmworkers’ movement has caused the misconception that it was exclusively led by Latino and Filipino farm workers. In reality, the movement was a multi-ethnic fight for better rights, including Black, Chinese, Japanese and Yemeni farm workers as well. Highlighting cross-cultural solidarity and the variety of diverse individuals that fought for farmworkers’ rights fosters a greater understanding of the movement rather than focusing solely on Cesar Chavez.


Camelia Heins is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at cheins@uci.edu.