Larry Itliong was the voice of the Filipino-American farm workers in Delano. With over a million people following him on youtube, singer/songwriter and Filipino American, AJ Rafael is using his voice to carry on Itliong’s legacy.
“There’s an unsung hero we don’t get to know, and that’s Larry Itliong,” Rafael said.
So, singer/songwriter and Filipino American, AJ Rafael picked up his guitar and started literally singing about him. “Our friend Larry Itliong,” is his original song about the Filipino-American labor leader that played a pivotal role in starting the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott in 1965.
Rafael even filmed part of the music video, a project commissioned by Theatreworks USA, in Delano. Kern County may recognize historic sites for the Filipino-American farm workers, or Manongs, like Filipino Community Hall and Agbayani Village.
“The community of Delano and all the Filipinos who know about Larry Itliong, were so, so proud of this story. That’s what I got from being there,” Rafael said. “Everyone was so thankful. I can’t believe it. They [even] stopped by Filipino Hall while we were shooting. A bunch of people were like, ‘I heard you were here! Can we take a photo?’”
The singer/songwriter, who said he didn’t know much about Itliong before, did some extensive research on the figure himself first. The biggest inspiration for the lyrics, he said, was Dr. Dawn B. Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta's book, “Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong. Thankfully, Romasanta gave him her blessing.
“I listened to a lot of Hamilton and a lot of rap growing up, so that helped me formulate the lyrics in a way where I could also talk to kids and be really descriptive about these things,” Rafael said. “So I did write the lyrics, but again heavy, heavy influence from Dr. Dawn and Gayle’s book.”
Rafael added that an educator is already creating curriculum around his song with the plan of getting it into elementary and middle schools in California. He recalls the panel Romasanta invited him to speak on that led a San Francisco State University professor to make a lesson plan that breaks down his lyrics. He said it gave him chills.
“I consider myself a good songwriter, but when it’s something like this that’s bigger than me, I’m like, that was God or something,” Rafael said.