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Little Manila & I: A Southside Story

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On the streets of El Dorado, Lafayette and Eighth, you see green and yellow-colored houses with iron-barred windows and shoes hanging on telephone lines. You see kids running around, fueled by the sugar of arroz con leche flavored paletas and the tang of the spicy chicharrones shaped like pinwheels. They skip to the hymns of ice cream trucks and rings of bells coming from elotero carts. When you turn your head, you notice teenagers exit the 315 RTD bus that came from the local high school, and they all huddle together in packs, giggling and playing MBNel’s ‘Feelings’ or Mike Sherm’s ‘Born a Boss’ on a portable speaker, wearing maroon colored shirts saying “RUN EHS.”

I saw this everyday.

My name is Karlaine Sales Francisco, and I am a first generation Filipina American from the Central Valley’s South Stockton, California. I am an Ilokano daughter with blood of sugar planters, ketchup cannery workers, grape workers and fishermen coming from Binalonan, Pangasinan and Santa Ignacia, Tarlac of the Philippines. When my family came to America, they found work and shelter in California cities — Stockton among them.

Top: “somewhere in south stockton, ca” (Photo and Caption: Jaelyn Sanidad); Bottom: Some of my family on my father’s side from Santa Ignacia, Tarlac, Philippines. (Photo: Ignacio Francisco)

If you were to visit Stockton and go down Eighth Street, you would stumble upon the Little Manila Center, which focuses on the historical preservation of Stockton/Filipino history and advocacy for a more equitable Stockton. Inside you will find rooms filled with artifacts from Filipino history in Stockton and a dance hall resonant with the music of a kulintang and the strumming of a bandurria.  

The Little Manila Center, located on South San Joaquin Street of South Stockton. (Photo: Karlaine Francisco)

You would also hear the voices of community educators and leaders who advocate for equity in multiple ways, whether by teaching Pinayism (Filipina feminism and sisterhood) or solidifying Ethnic Studies in Stockton Unified schools (which as of 2019, it did!). The people leading these journeys to teach the next generation of youth, such as Manang Jaelyn and Ate (Tagalog for older sister) Glenabel, have found healing in the work of Manong Dillon and Manang Dawn. Their desire to uplift and bring the youth together, largely those in the Filipinx community, to fight for multifaceted equity in Stockton has made me realize the importance of youth activism.

Little Manila Rising, the organization founded by South Stockton natives Dillon Delvo and Dawn Mabalon, has been working to “change the lives of young people and bring [the Stockton Filipinx] community out of the margins.” Programs within this organization such as the Little Manila After School Program, Little Manila Dance Collective, Bahala Na Martial Arts and recently a new internship program called Youth Advocates for Social Justice are increasing their involvement with the Stockton youth. From teaching the martial art of eskrima to leading workshops on environmental justice and the 2020 Census, Little Manila Rising makes it clear with their staff and programs that their goals are to inspire the youth. 

Glenabel Toreno is a 19-year old Little Manila After School Program alumnus and intern for Youth Advocates for Social Justice. When I spoke with her, she described Stockton as “a city with youth who are all products of their ancestors’ hardships … Power and resilience lives through everyone here.” Toreno is a Pinay from the Central Visayan Islands of Siquijor, Philippines and currently resides in South Stockton, California. She is a student at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, but told me that she hopes to transfer to SF State for a major in Ethnic Studies. After pursuing higher education, Toreno wants to provide Stockton with educational resources regarding the environmental injustices in the community. 

Little Manila after school program class of 2019, featuring Glenabel Toreno (second row, first). (Photo: Aldrich Sabac)
Little Manila Dance Collective post-performance at the University of Pacific, Stockton, California. (Photo: positivelyfilipino.com)

As Stockton is located in the Central Valley, it is surrounded by fields of asparagus and levees that span from Spanos to Seaport. While this city has a rich history of resilience and power, I learned through Little Manila’s community educators that before it was recognized as “Stockton,” this land belonged to the Yokut and Miwok people. They cultivated land stretching all the way from Stockton to Bakersfield until it was stolen by Europeans. Much of Stockton’s agriculture has been heavily maintained by Filipino farmworkers that plow and harvest their crops on the same soil that the Yokut and Miwok people planted on for centuries. The strength and knowledge of the Native Miwok and Yokut people has been buried in the soil that grows our crops each and every day. 

Learning this led me to reflect — not for the first time — on the double consciousness of my hometown. Despite being the most racially diverse city in the entire country, much of what we are taught in Stockton schools about why where we live is the most diverse in America is hidden because of the institutionalized racism, redlining and gentrification. Irrespective of when a Stockton student takes their first steps onto their school campus, they are likely to be fed narratives that only reveal one side of history. These prejudiced narratives can internally backfire on the individual’s self discovery, growth and liberation. 

Dillon Delvo, Co-founder and Executive Director of Little Manila Rising and son of a Manong who came to the U.S. in 1928 at 18, told me “[he] never knew anything about [the] life that [his father] led” until the beginning of his undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University in 1991. Indeed, Dillon knew he was a full-blooded Filipino straight from the Southside, but upon taking his first college course, “The Psyche and Behavior of Filipinos,” he realized he “knew nothing about who [he] was, [his] ancestors [or his] own family.” Dillon’s experience with having to learn history outside of the place where it occurred enraged him. He even began to question his own alma mater Edison High School as to why no Ethnic Studies program or Filipino History course was implemented there or incorporated into the US History curriculum like the Civil Rights and United Farmworkers Movements. 

A sign reading “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” (Photo: Look Magazine, 1945)

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Little Manila in the Southside of Stockton was the hub of all things Filipino, home to the largest population of Filipinos in the world besides the homeland of the Philippines. However, their jobs mainly being in industrialized agriculture — ketchup canneries, asparagus plantations or other field work — gave these Manongs and Manangs low wages, health problems and racial discrimination. But Filipino students from Stockton never learned these things at school or even from their own families. 

A long time friend of Dillon’s, Dr. Dawn Mabalon (1972-2018), also experienced learning her history through leaving its origin place. Since meeting in Marshall Middle School’s 7th and 8th grade science class, and then working together as Edison’s Yearbook “Hi-lite” staff, Dawn and Dillon have always been passionate about being involved in the Filipinx community. After receiving her B.A and M.A, both from UCLA, Dawn reconnected with Dillon when they both returned to Stockton post grad school in 1998. That same year, Dawn was accepted into Stanford University to complete her doctoral studies in American History. There, she wrote her dissertation “Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California” on the history of Little Manila and its significance to Stocktonians.

While Dawn was researching as a doctoral student at Stanford, she found letters in archives cataloguing Dillon’s father’s work alongside organizers Dolores Huerta and Larry Itiliong in AWOC (Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee), the precursor to the UFW (United Farm Workers). Dillon reminisced that “Dawn not only taught me everything about local Filipino American history… but then Dawn gave me my dad.” 

The late Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and her doctoral dissertation on Little Manila. (Photo: positivelyfilipino.com)
One of the many tributes for Dr. Dawn at the Little Manila Center in the Southside of Stockton, California. (Photo: asianamericana.com)

Dawn and Dillon are two of the many roses that grow from Stockton concrete. Dawn is recognized not only for being the first Filipina-born American to earn a PhD in History at Stanford — and collectively fighting and advocating for historical preservation of Filipino history, but also for leaving a legacy. She has left a mark, especially for people of color, products of immigration and South Stockton natives. Her books, articles and advocacy are what push students like Toreno to “fight for [their] community, because if not now, then when?” Like many others from the Southside, this place taught me control. It taught me to be resilient and strong — protecting of our own, but delicate enough to show compassion for others. Dawn’s legacy has inspired me to never forget the stories that revolve around my culture as a Filipina Stocktonian. In writing this, my first-ever attempt at journalism through The Stanford Daily, I too am indebted to Dawn and Little Manila who first gave me my voice and the courage to share the untold stories of my community in Stockton with the world. 

Contact Karlaine Francisco at itskarlaine ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Karlaine Francisco is a high school student writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.