Little Manila is in the heart | Inquirer Opinion
Social Climate

Little Manila is in the heart

/ 12:28 AM November 16, 2013

STOCKTON, California – In the past 25 years since my brother migrated here with his family, and was joined by our widowed mother when she retired, I’ve visited this pleasant city at least 15 times. I had always thought that its basic historical significance was in having the largest community of Filipinos in the United States by the 1940s, due to the many thousands of farm workers who migrated here starting in the 1920s.

Initially, I knew it as a favorite city of Carlos Bulosan, whom I considered a great Filipino humorist, having enjoyed repeatedly reading “The Laughter of My Father,” which I discovered as a boy in the library of my father (Federico Mangahas, his friend and fellow writer in English). I knew Bulosan was an activist for farm workers, but not that he was a communist.


In my student days in Chicago in the mid-1960s, I confirmed my guess that Filipino farm workers were part of the great California grape strike, by personally asking Cesar Chavez himself, when I met him by chance at a friend’s apartment; he accepted my $5 donation for the Filipino strikers with a friendly smile.

But now that I have encountered Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, and her eye-opening book, “Little Manila is in the heart: the making of the Filipina/o American community in Stockton, California” (Duke University Press, 2013), I have learned much more. Dr. Mabalon, a third-generation Stocktonian, is associate professor of history at San Francisco State University; her address is <[email protected]>. (She constantly uses “Filipina/o” to follow certain historians in calling attention to the important role of gender in societal experience.)


Using English.  I now realize that the migrants of the 1920s referred to themselves not so much as Filipinos but as either Ilocanos or Visayans, depending on where they originated. The lingua franca across ethnicities was not Tagalog like it is now, but whatever English they had learned from the public schools hurriedly set up during the American occupation. No wonder Bulosan (who was from Pangasinan) wrote in English: It was more for addressing his fellow Filipinos than the Americans!

Labor militancy.  I now know that “with the intense but tiny gang strikes they used to shock farmers in the 1920s and moving to the enormous strikes of the 1930s that froze entire industries, Filipina/os soon earned a reputation for being among the most radical and militant workers in the United States.”

Escrima.  Stockton is unique for propagating escrima.  In 1967, the first public Filipino Martial Arts Academy in the United States was started in Stockton, by Angel Caballes. In 1968, the war hero Leo Giron opened up his own escrima school, now named the Bahala Na Martial Arts Club. A student of Giron and Caballes, Don Inosanto, who met Bruce Lee in 1964, and was his training partner until Lee’s untimely death in 1973, is one of the most skilled martial arts teachers in the world. The Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Southern California is widely credited with bringing escrima to Hollywood films.

Little Manila.  Dr. Mabalon is a cofounder of Little Manila Foundation, an organization dedicated to reclaiming Stockton’s Filipino American heritage. Little Manila is a district that, from the 1920s up to the 1960s, covered at least eight blocks of the city of Stockton. The intersection of Lafayette and El Dorado streets was a crossroads of Filipino America, “wall-to-wall-carpeted with Filipinos”. The original Little Manila had all of the business establishments needed to sustain the Filipinos, and they took pride in it.

However, from the 1970s onward, the district was steadily depleted of its buildings by the urban redevelopment policies of Stockton, especially by the construction of a Crosstown Freeway through its heart. The Filipino Americans resisted, and won some battles, in particular getting the city council in 2000 to designate the area around Lafayette and El Dorado the Little Manila Historic Site, and getting the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2003 to name Little Manila as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America. Yet the demolitions did not stop, and now only two blocks of the historic neighborhood, and a handful of the original buildings, remain; so the struggle continues.

The title of the book.  It comes, of course, from Bulosan’s autobiographical novel, “America Is in the Heart.” Though keenly aware of the racial prejudice, violence, denial of human rights, and other injustices in America, Bulosan wrote in the last chapter: “I knew that no man could destroy my faith in America that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.”

The Filipinos have kept the faith, says Dr. Mabalon. “Through these long decades, they married and established families, brought over their relatives from the Philippines, created enduring institutions and a vibrant ethnic community, made their voices heard politically—in short, used their imaginations and creativity to become that new entity, Filipina/o Americans. In so doing, they themselves created the America of which they dreamed: the Little Manila of their hearts, a beloved ethnic community and a unique and special world in Stockton. Though the buildings are gone, and the old-timers have passed away, the power and promise of the Little Manila community remains in the hearts of every Filipina/o who remembers and reclaims its legacy.”


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By the way, there’s talk that a high city official of Stockton will soon visit the Philippines to bring aid for the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”

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Contact SWS: or [email protected]

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TAGS: California, Filipino immigrants, Filipino migrants, Mahar Mangahas, opinion, Social Climate, Stockton
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