October is Filipino-American History Month, and that means more than just competing in the annual balut eating contest. On Oct. 1, Mayor Arakawa, the County of Maui, and the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce kicked off the month by raising the Filipino flag at the county building. Several restaurants provided food for the public in attendance, which was just a preview of the cultural celebration held at Ka‘ahumanu Mall last weekend during the Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festival. But for 325 workers on strike at Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa, participating in a continual component of Filipino-American history takes a much more dire form – resistance.
Even as someone of Filipino heritage, I didn’t grow up learning much about the long history of colonization, oppression, diaspora, resistance, and resilience of Filipinos. I remember the first time I learned about the Philippines in elementary school: The mention was in a lesson about Magellan, and how a brave explorer met his demise on an uncivilized island in the Pacific.
Yep, the first mention of my heritage in class was about how my ancestors killed the guy trying to sail around the world for the first time. It didn’t seem a glorious history to be proud of.
I didn’t know then that Magellan belongs in the history books next to Cook and Columbus, explorers sent on a domineering mission of discovery meant to expand Eurpoeans’ cultural and economic reach across the globe and establish footholds for imperialism, conversion, and colonization to take place by the West. I didn’t learn that Lapu-Lapu, the chief who killed Magellan, was attacked by Magellan’s men because he refused to bend the knee to foreign powers. I also didn’t learn that because of this act of defiance, Lapu-Lapu is considered the first Filipino hero for being the first native to resist Spanish colonization.
I had to learn these lessons outside of school. Growing up, I tangled with stereotypes of the “good” or servile Filipino, destined for work in the hospitality industry or manual labor. History class, it turned out, also didn’t teach me that Filipino-American history is much more than a diaspora of hard-working immigrants eager to take labor jobs in the states. Filipino-American history is a heritage of standing up for what’s right, and valuing labor and the contributions of workers.
Unfortunately, it is a history that is too often forgotten. Cesar Chavez, the Hispanic organizer, is widely known for his contribution to workers rights during the Farmworker Movement, grape picker strikes, and grape boycott. Lesser known is the Filipino manong Larry Itliong, who led Filipino farmworkers that fought for better working conditions.
“I’m extremely proud that Cesar Chavez was the right face at the right time, but a lot of the dirty work was already done,” Anhelica Perez, a descendent of Latina participants in the grape picker strike, told NPR in a story titled Grapes Of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led A Farmworker Revolution, referencing how Filipino workers laid the foundation of resistance for decades. While Chavez had been organizing Mexican workers for years, a move as bold as a strike wasn’t part of his plans.
When Filipino workers went on strike, Itliong met with Chavez to advocate for solidarity. Two weeks later, Mexican workers joined the strike and the Filipino and Mexican unions came together to form what would become the United Farm Workers, with Chavez at the helm and Itliong as assistant director. The prominent Delano Grape Strike lasted five difficult years before growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers.
Closer to home, Filipino labor leader Pablo Manlapit resisted oppressive working conditions on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, where laborers cut and hoisted cane in the sun for 10-12 hours a day and were paid today’s equivalent of about $13 a day. Manlapit was instrumental in advocating for solidarity between workers of different origins, and fostered an alliance between Japanese and Filipino workers as business owners attempted to divide the working class. Manlapit organized two strikes, one in 1920 and one in 1924, to demand an eight-hour day, better housing, equal pay between men and women, and collective bargaining rights. The first strike was successful in uniting plantation workers. The second ended in the disastrous Hanapepe Massacre in which 16 strikers and four policemen were killed.
There are shadows of this heritage of resistance in the strikes going on at the Sheraton Maui and Marriott Hotels across the country. These workers are fighting the same struggles: for better pay, better working conditions, job security, and safety in the workplace. The demographics are also similar.
“We don’t have any specific info,” Cade Watanabe, an organizer at Unite Here Local 5, the union representing the striking Sheraton Maui workers, told me in an email. “But I’d say that at least 70-75 [percent] of our membership at the hotel would identify themselves as being Filipino or at least part Filipino.”
This is not to say that resistance is uniquely Filipino or to minimize the contributions of the diversity of people who are fighting for their share in the strikes around the country – this is to say that now, as we recognize the last week of Filipino-American History Month, we have an opportunity to look to the past at the history of a people who have stood against class inequality, in order to invigorate our fight to secure rights and fairness for all working people.
In a Honolulu Civil Beat op-ed, Jun Shin wrote that the Marriott strike could have implications in Hawai‘i for generations to come. “We have a chance right here and now to win a victory for the workers,” he wrote, “that will help us in the long run in the education, the discussion, and the political and policy decisions that will shape the futures of our generations, our kids generation, and their kids in all of our continued work to shape a fair and just society for all.”
Indeed, “the hotel workers’ fight is everyone’s fight.” And Filipino-American labor history echoes all workers’ struggles for their fair share. So this month, while you enjoy the festival pancit, also consider honoring the lesser-known parts of Filipino American history by walking the picket line at Sheraton Maui, discouraging business with the Sheraton until negotiations are settled, listening to strikers, and supporting workers who are walking picket lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with food, water, or monetary donations.
Photo 1 courtesy Facebook/UHMCKabatak
Photo 2 courtesy Facebook/UniteHereLocal5