Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong

Dawn Bohulano Mabalon

Book cover

This is an awesome children’s book whose time is long overdue (and that adults should read too!). It’s published by Bridge & Delta, a new small press from Stockton, CA run by the Filipina-American Gayle Romasanta. This book is co-authored by Romasanta and Dawn Mabalon, a really extraordinary person whom I sadly only learned about this year because of her tragic and untimely death. I’ll write a lot more about Mabalon in my review of her (grown-ups) book “Little Manila is in the Heart.”

As the title suggests, this book is about the life of Larry Itliong. Itliong was a Filipino-American labor organizer who (among other things) led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in the 1960s. It was under Itliong’s leadership that the AWOC initiated the famous Delano grape strike and boycott; furthermore, Itliong was the person who convinced Cesar Chavez to cooperate by bringing the Mexican-American National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) onto the picket line alongside the Filipino-Americans of AWOC (these two unions ultimately merged as the United Farm Workers, UFW). This marked the first time that Filipino and Mexican farm workers stood united and invalidated the standard growers’ tactic of using racial divisions to have one group break the other’s strikes, and was a pivotal moment in the story of the agricultural labor movement in the US.

For some reason, Chavez became much better known than Itliong–meaning that while most Americans are aware of the leading role of Chicanos in the farm workers movement, the story of Filipinos in the movement has barely been told. Thus, why this book is so important!

The book is very well written and is not at all “childish”–it contains a lot of information and explains concepts like unions, strikes, and scabs in very understandable terms; it’s certainly geared toward an older child (though I am bad at estimating specific age range targets). The artwork by Andre Sibayan is also quite pretty–he uses a colorful, humanistic, and iconographic style that recalls Diego Rivera or more recently Nikki McClure. I did wonder about one thing. Itliong lost three fingers in an accident early in life and had the nickname “Seven Fingers.” This is narrated in the book. Yet the artwork almost always “hides” his hand with missing fingers–I only identified one illustration where you could clearly see it. I imagine that in life, Itliong might himself have tried to hide it, and that the artwork is just reflecting/respecting that. But it did seem like perhaps a missed opportunity to be more open about it and give (more prominent) representation to a historic figure with a disability. (Similar to the FDR memorial in Washington, which shows him in his wheelchair even though he was at pains to hide his disability in life–we can recognize today that it was unjust that he was made to feel that way, and that representation matters in this dimension too.)

Overall, I am thrilled that this book exists, and hope that it finds a broad audience among American children. Gayle Romasanta told my wife Elise that she is planning an event in New York in the new year, and we are really looking forward to it!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars