Historian brings Filipino American experience out of the shadows

Associate Professor of History Dawn Mabalon's new book explores the city of Stockton's role as the hub of Filipino America.

"When you look at the history of Filipinos in the United States or the birth of California's farmworker movement, many lines lead back to Stockton," Mabalon said. "The tragedy is that most people in Stockton and elsewhere don't know this story."

Book jacket for

"Little Manila is in the Heart" traces the history of Filipinos in Stockton, Calif. from the first immigrants who flocked to the region in 1898 to the birth and eventual destruction of the city's Little Manila neighborhood in the late 20th century. In its heyday in the 1930s, this six-block district was home to the largest Filipino community outside of the Philippines.  

The book is the culmination of two decades of research, including dozens of oral histories collected from older Stockton residents.

For Mabalon, a third-generation Stockton Filipina, the project was inspired by a personal conviction. In 1997, she witnessed the demolition of her grandfather's old diner as part of a redevelopment project in downtown Stockton, and she was inspired to publish a book about her community's long-buried past.

"That was a turning point for me," she said. "I was no longer just a historian investigating the community. I became a scholar who was researching the history of the community in order to try to save the Little Manila neighborhood."

Alongside her academic research, she co-founded the Little Manila Foundation, which swayed the city of Stockton to designate the district as the Little Manila Historic Site.

Photo of Associate Professor of History Dawn Mabalon.Associate Professor of History Dawn Mabalon. Credit: Jeremy Keith Villaluz

Little Manila has been under threat since the 1950s and '60s, when sections of the neighborhood were bulldozed to make way for a freeway and fast food outlets. At the time, the Filipino community did not have the political or economic clout to fight the redevelopment, but Mabalon believes there was also another factor. "Often we don't think that something is worth saving because we don't know enough about our history," she said.

Mabalon hopes her book will educate the Stockton community about their history and the contributions of Filipino Americans.

"When people learn about the United Farmworkers Union, they rarely hear about the contributions of Filipino Americans," Mabalon said. Her book highlights how Stocktonians such as Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta led the 1965 Delano grape strike which helped lay the groundwork for what became the United Farmworkers Union.

Beyond Stockton, she hopes the book will inspire other ethnic communities that are in danger of being displaced by urban redevelopment projects. 

"I want to inspire people to think about their place in history and to preserve the built environment around them," she said. "By learning lessons from the past, perhaps people will be more prepared to preserve their own communities."

Mabalon will be giving book talks at City Lights Bookstore on July 10, Hotel Stockton on July 13 and Arkipelago Books on Aug. 3.

-- Elaine Bible