“Wen Manong is a phrase used to express respect for an older Filipino man. It is an appropriate phrase to reflect the younger generation’s commitment to remember those who came before them and to learn from the past.”
This quote kicks off the biography Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement. Philip Vera Cruz was the longest-serving Filipino officer in the United Farm Workers (UFW), acting as vice-president under Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta from 1966 To 1977.
The spirit of Wen Manong runs deep through Filipino-America, especially on the West Coast where the first generation of Filipino immigrants came to work in the fields and canneries, hotels and restaurants of Hawaii, California, Washington and Alaska in the early 1900s.
These manongs laid the foundations for the strong Filipino communities of the American West. They also organized this country’s first farmworkers’ strikes in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii, the asparagus fields of Stockton, and yes – the grape fields of Coachella and Delano, California.
Diego Luna’s new movie about Cesar Chavez was an opportunity to highlight these manongs and the historic alliance between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers. But sadly, the movie falls painfully short of showing our manongs the respect they deserve.
Cesar Chavez, as the charismatic leader of the UFW and gifted organizer behind much of the UFW’s prominence and strategic success, is duly respected through Luna’s movie and rightfully re-centered on the mainstream American stage.
But the story of Cesar Chavez and the UFW is incomplete without a more accurate representation of the Filipino manongs who fought alongside him, co-founded the UFW, and helped win the first contract victory that led to better working conditions for farmworkers in this country.
The problem with Luna’s portrayal of Filipino farmworkers is not that he completely erases their story, it’s that he completely rewrites their story through token appearances and visuals that completely misrepresent Filipinos’ pivotal role.
The movie contains split-second scenes of Filipino workers in the fields and snippets of original footage of Filipinos and Mexicans together on the picket line. There are a handful of appearances of UWC co-founder Larry Itliong -- played by actor Darion Basco – but in most of his scenes he just stands at the back of union meetings with his arms crossed for dear life and an intensely confused look on his face.
Some additional nods include the Philippine flag being carried along with the Mexican and US flags on the march from Delano to Sacramento, as well as a large “Filipino Community of Delano” banner as the backdrop to the meeting where Chavez begins his fast for nonviolent resistance.
But overall here’s the story that the movie told me about Filipino farmworkers:
Filipino farmworkers got themselves in over their heads by starting a strike and then inexplicably got penned in like pigs by the growers’ men. Desperate, they sent word to Chavez to ask the Mexican farmworkers to join the strike because they knew they couldn’t save themselves and knew they couldn’t win without them.
Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) step in and save the day by joining the strike. From here on out, the place of Filipino farmworkers is literally in the back of the room, as silent supporters of and beneficiaries of Chavez and his newly formed United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Meanwhile the key non-Mexican players that made the UFW strike and boycott successful were a white lawyer, Bobby Kennedy, and dockworkers in Great Britain who refused to unload cargo ships full of California grapes.
For comparison, here’s the story as I understand it from the point of view of Filipino farmworkers and Filipino-American historians, simplified (but not distorted) to fit a Hollywood screenplay:
Filipino farmworkers or manongs had been organizing in California fields since the 1920s. By the early 1960s, Filipinos made up the majority of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which voted to launch the Delano Grape Strike on September 8, 1965. Though AWOC was part of the AFL-CIO, the manongs’ decision to go on strike was purely their own and made independently of white AFL-CIO leadership. Larry Itliong, a friend of Dolores Huerta’s who would essentially become a co-founder of the UFW, was an organizer with AWOC at the time and was influential in the manongs’ decision to go on strike.
More than 1500 Filipino farmworkers were striking for 8 days before Itliong reached out to Chavez and the NFWA to join the strike. The growers had brought in Mexican workers to cross the picket lines to crush the strike, and in response Itliong, Chavez and other Filipino and Mexican farmworker leaders recognized the need to join forces against the divide and conquer tactics of the growers. Despite very real prejudices and challenges on both sides, Chavez and the NFWA voted to join Itliong and the AWOC farmworkers in the strike. In 1966, AWOC and the NFWA merged to become the UFW with Cesar Chavez as President and Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and others as vice-presidents. Filipino farmworkers continued to play an important role in the UFW, developing strong camaraderie with Mexican farmworkers and playing leadership roles in the boycott and negotiations that led to the 1970 contract victory that granted workers the better wages, protections and benefits they deserved.
Diego Luna has dismissed this major rewrite of Filipino farmworkers’ role by playing the Hollywood card and saying “it’s movie-making”. At the same time he’s claimed credit for being able to do justice to Filipino farmworkers by “representing a community that hasn’t been represented in cinema, at least the way I believe it should be.”
So which is it Diego? Is your movie just insignificant movie-making, or is it a powerful platform for representation and misrepresentation that actually matters?
The point is that storytelling is never just the harmless act of movie-making, especially when you’ve got a soapbox the size of Hollywood. Storytelling always matters because it is always the powerful act of influencing what people believe about whom and how our behaviors, customs and laws should respond accordingly.
I hope that everyone who tells stories for justice can see the misreprentation of manong farmworkers in the Cesar Chavez movie as an example of how important it is to respect the stories of allies and collaborators, especially if they are a “minority within a minority”, in the words of Philip Vera Cruz.
Respecting these stories means widening the lens beyond one charismatic leader and beyond one heroic group to focus on the complexity, challenges and triumphs of collaboration. It’s not about going down the rabbit-hole of laundry-listing, it’s about doing the work of giving credit where credit’s due.
Diego Luna’s rewriting of Filipino farmworkers’ roles fails to give manongs the credit they are due. In doing so, he is unintentionally but definitively perpetuating both stereotypes of Asian passivity and conditions of Filipinos’ invisibility and dearth of political power relative to our population in the U.S.
This misrepresentation leaves a void where it should have built a foundation for viewers to ask questions about the fate of the historic alliance between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers, and about conditions for Filipino and Mexican immigrant workers today.
And it hurts all the more because it didn’t have to be this way. Luna could have made some simple changes that would have more accurately portrayed Filipino farmworkers’ important roles. For example, he could have had Larry Itliong front and center at the final signing of the victory contract with the growers, and he could have showed Itliong taking over the facilitation of the meeting at which Chavez declared his fast for non-violence. Both of these true-to-life moments would have gone a long way in showing Itliong for the peer that he was, and in symbolically placing all Filipino manongs in their rightful place in the struggle.
This to me is a very personal example of how those of us who tell stories for justice need to work harder to do no harm in our storytelling. We need to go the extra mile to fill our own knowledge gaps so we can make artful additions to our stories to paint complex but compelling pictures of how movements really work. But for storytelling to achieve this level it takes deliberate intention to do the narrative equivalent of coalition-building. It may be hard and messy just like on the ground coalition-building, but we know it’s necessary to win the respect and dignity that translates into material changes, cultural influence and power for all marginalized communities.
March's National Digital Dialogue, organized by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), focused on the connections between reproductive justice and media justice. The call was moderated by Betty Yu (MAG-Net) and Andrea Quijada (Media Literacy Project). The speakers on the call included Jessica Collins (Media Literacy Project), Adriann Barboa (Forward Together/Strong Families), Micaela Cadena (Young Women United), and Misty Perez (Free Press).
Reproductive Justice (RJ) is simply defined as the right to decide if, when, and how we parent. Reproductive Justice is a social justice movement rooted in the belief that individuals and communities should have the resources and power to make decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, and lives. Reproductive Justice, like many social justice movements, heavily relies on the power of communication and media to build our bases, create and fight for policies, win campaigns, organize our communities, and share our stories. We need both media justice and reproductive justice in order to live healthy, sustainable, and liberated lives.
What's At Stake
Today many communities lack access to health resources, particularly low-income and rural communities. In addition, there is an overall gap in comprehensive sex education for youth and adults and in medically accurate and culturally relevant health information. There are barriers to birth control, barriers to protection against sexually transmitted infections, barriers to living wages that affect the health of parents and children, barriers to a healthy environment free of toxins and pesticides that can affect our bodies and ability to parent. There are immigration policy barriers that divide families and other policies that limit who and what is defined as a family. Reproductive justice is a movement that emerged from people of color who experienced and understood that many cross-sector issues impact our sexuality, bodies, and health. The RJ movement is larger than the right to have an abortion—it includes the right to have a child and to have that child be healthy, and it demands the right for us to be our whole selves. It means we have the health resources and information we need to support our self-determination.
Culture Shifts in Reproductive Justice Today
There are many organizations working on RJ at the local and national levels. Forward Together and its ten-year Strong Families Initiative is redefining family by organizing communities, launching campaigns, and working on policies that serve all the ways our families look. Our families may include young parents, single parents, they may be queer, they may have no children, they are the three in four families in our country that are rarely represented in our media and in our policies.
Young Women United (YWU), an organization led by young women of color in New Mexico, has been working with young parents to shift the culture so that they are honored rather than stigmatized in their schools and in the larger community. YWU has also been working on issues of youth health access, supporting new mothers in birth support and breastfeeding, and providing resources to substance-using pregnant women so that they have access to quality pre-natal care. YWU has been successful in shifting culture and the dominant narrative regarding how people view young parents. In teen prevention campaigns across the country we have seen young parents stigmatized again and again. In mainstream media, shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant portray young parents in a sensationalized manner. YWU has reframed young parents as people to recognize and honor. A state memorial was passed in New Mexico recognizing August 25 as a day to honor young parents. In 2013, YWU, with the support of young parents across New Mexico and other allies, passed a bill allowing for excused absences for young parents. This bill allows young parents in high school to raise their children, while also reaching their educational goals.
Media Literacy Project, a organization based in Albuquerque that works to transform everyday people into critical media consumers and engaged media justice advocates, has run a successful Girl Tech program where young women of color are trained in media deconstruction, media justice, reproductive justice, storytelling, and video production. The directors create short videos on a reproductive justice story that relates to their lives. The videos produced during the first three years of the program included stories on comprehensive sex education, birth, young parents, traditional healing, youth health access, and support for those struggling with drug addiction. Media Literacy Project is the New Mexico Anchor for the Media Action Grassroots Network.
Free Press is a national media reform organization advocating for universal and affordable Internet access, diverse media ownership, vibrant public media and quality journalism. With increased media consolidation, telecommunications companies are making content decisions about which messages can be created and sent and which ones are blocked and kept invisible. In 2007, Verizon Wireless rejected Naral Pro-Choice America efforts to use Verizon's mobile text-message program to communicate to its membership. At that time, text messaging was a new and important new tool for advocacy organizations seeking to educate and alert their members. Free Press's SavetheInternet.com Coalition called for congressional hearings to address public outcry over the phone carriers' censorship policies. Verizon's decision interferes with political speech and mobile users' right to get information that they choose to receive.
The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) is a national network of 150 grassroots, culture/arts, media and social justice organizations working to advance a people centered media justice agenda to end poverty and eliminate racism. In today's media landscape, men are the ones mainly making policy decisions and speaking about the health and lives of women, queer and transgender communities. The corporate media perpetuates and gives a limited representation of what a "conventional" family should look like. Our communities who are consistently misrepresented in the mainstream media understand how powerful the media is in shaping ideas and opinions that impact our policies, our health, and our lives.
MAG-Net recognizes there are many shared values and principles the media justice and reproduce justice have around advancing gender, health, social, racial and economic justice. There are fundamental media policy fights that affect all of us, there are fundamental reproductive justice fights that impact our health and families. We work to bring together policy experts, community organizers, reproductive justice advocates, artists, and media makers to challenge the corporate media's narrative, to shift culture through telling our own stories, to support each other's campaigns and build our movements to scale to impact policy change. We need to have the relationships in place to support one another and push back against racist and sexist media representations of our communities. MAG-Net works to build a strong unified movement so we're not just reacting and pushing back against corporate media, but we're also cultivating, owning and creating alternative media outlets where we can shape, create and share our own stories.
Media Justice and Taking Action
RJ and other social justice organizations rely on the Internet to send out messages, collect stories, collaborate, and to run their operations in a 21st century media environment. To do this effectively we need a free and open Internet, closing the digital divide, and we need less media consolidation and more diversity in media ownership so that people aren't telling our stories for us, misrepresenting, ignoring, or silencing us. We need community media such as low-power FM radio stations, mesh networks and other systems that provide free public wifi, community access channels, local papers, and local online news organizations that work for the community. We need to work with and pay artists to create images that resonate and represent us. We need to collaborate and increase our reach through strategic coalitions, resource sharing, and other collective strategies. We need to continue to build youth leadership and train others in media technologies so that they can thrive and share what they have learned with others. Lastly, we need policies that support all families and that support our right to communicate.
Jessica Collins, originally from Kansas City, has lived in New Mexico for 13 years. Jessica joined Media Literacy Project in 2003 and has trained thousands of youth, educators, and community leaders across the nation on media literacy topics including gender, race, sexuality, body image, reality television, and digital storytelling. She runs Media Literacy Project's Girl Tech program for young women of color who learn about media justice, reproductive justice, video production, and storytelling for community change. She has developed several multimedia educational resources including Challenging the Debt Industry, a documentary and media literacy curriculum on predatory lending. Jessica serves on the board of Young Women United, a reproductive justice organization by and for women of color. She has a passion for film, storytelling, and working with youth. She enjoys deconstructing TV shows, music videos, and target marketing tactics. Jessica has over ten years of filmmaking and media literacy experience and is a graduate from the University of New Mexico where she earned a B.A. in Media Arts.
Betty Yu coordinates the Media Action Grassroots Network(MAG-Net) where she manages our national media justice network of over 100 grassroots community organizations, coordinates nine regional chapters and curates the media justice learning community. She has over 15 years of community organizing, media activist, and filmmaking experience. Betty has additionally worked as a labor organizer for the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, an immigrant rights workers center in New York City’s Chinatown. She is also co-founder of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a 15 year-old multi-racial workers center. Betty is a board member for Deep Dish TV and Third World Newsreel, two media organizations that nationally distributes radical videos and films.
Press conference in Philadelphia presenting petition signatures in favor of earned sick days
Labor and Independent Media Rise Up
Remember the Winter of 2011? On Valentine's Day, Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker introduced the "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill", legislation that would put a $3.6 billion budget deficit on the backs of the state's 300,000 workers. What followed was the largest mass showing of public sector employees in recent history. Hundreds of thousands of workers, family members and neighbors encircled and occupied the capitol to show in support of collective bargaining rights in the first state of the union to make them law for public employees.
Note: Conservative frames that currently dominate the media environment have given rise to policies that hurt everyone. If you work for a justice centered organization you know this from living it. And you know how important the need is for effective and resourced communications strategies that compete for public and political support. That's why we're so excited to release Echoing Justice: Communications Strategies for Community Organizing in the 21st Century along with our allies. The report provides most comprehensive information on grassroots communications capacity and strategy to date. See the full report at http://centerformediajustice.org/echoing-justice/
One does not have to be familiar with the bolt sizes on the wrecking balls that tore down Cabrini-green to oppose the demolition of public housing. One must hold close the comfort of stepping into a warm room from a cold outdoors, the solace of a bed to lie in, and the security of a place called home.
We have become the expert biographers of our own demise. Rather than offering a vision of the world we yearn for, we study and share the machinations of government and capital that harm us. Like doctors who offer diagnoses but no cures, we are the town criers of a sick society rather than the midwives of the world to come.
A brief timeline of communications in the grassroots organizing sector since the year 2000.
Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: Zero. Communicators don’t screw the status quo, they screw us by taking money we could be spending on organizers.
Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: 1/2. If 1/2 of one person faxes out enough press releases, eventually the status quo will be screwed.
Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A. One. If one person does some magic framing and gets onto myspace/facebook/twitter, sooner or later the status quo will be screwed.
Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A. One for every organization and alliance. To develop narratives, to lead with values, to get 1000+ facebook/twitter/instagram followers, and to screw the status quo! 2012
Last week, I had the great fortune of participating in a passionate discussion with a set of brilliant and effective leaders on what some call the "progressive project", in reference to the long-term goals and strategies of a broadly defined progressive movement. In the brightly lit meeting rooms of the Desmond Tutu Retreat Center in NY, a set of very smart people puzzled over the question many in the progressive movement have been asking for the last fifty years.
What will it take for us to win?
As we talked, a comrade of mine from the League of Young Voters announced that the more than 60 million dollars spent by Republicans on the Scott Walker campaign in Wisconsin resulted in 38% of union households voting for Walker, and therefore against their own self-interests- according to a June 5th article published in the NY Times. The big question on everyone's mind was why.
I had a conversation a few years back with an organizer from the organization formerly known as ACORN. Just a few days before, the 2005 living wage ballot measure in Albuquerque had lost by less than two percent of the vote. The organizer was expressing her frustration that funders were "getting caught up" in resourcing communications strategies to mobilize mainstream audiences in response to the fact that the Albuquerque campaign was the first effort where opposition put money into media, testing a message that framed living wage as anti choice and impinging on workplace freedom. The media, in her analysis, was effective with the opposition but the coalition’s base of supporters was solid and the actual majority. They would have won, she believed, if they had resources for a few more organizers to get their folk to the polls.
As we reflect on Organizing Upgrade's one-year anniversary, Left Turn is celebrating ten years since it first launched as a much-needed magazine for the emergent social movements of our time. Organizing Upgrade is excited to share this reflective piece written by two members of the editorial collective of Left Turn magazine, Max Uhlenbeck and Rami El-Amine.
Welcome back to Fast Forum! We pick a hot topic and ask 3 – 6 organizers from across the country to weigh in. Our hope is to draw out new ideas and to encourage new voices to take a stab at the freshest challenges facing our community. This month, Joseph Phelan, one of our editors here at Organizing Upgrade, pulled together a FastForum exploring the intersection of strategic communications and left organizing.