July 4, 1939. The card notes the Rizal Social Club of Stockton was "The only exclusive and air-conditioned stream-lined club in America!" (Photo: Courtesy of Filipino American National Historical Society)
Filipinos constitute the largest Asian-American population in California. Surprised? According to the last U.S. Census, there are nearly 1.5 million Filipino-Americans living in the Golden State, most in Southern California and the Bay Area. It’s a fascinating story, but it doesn’t get a lot of play in our history books. San Francisco State Associate Professor of History Dawn Mabalon is keen to change that.
Back in the early 20th century, the center of Filipino-American life was in Stockton. Surprised about that, too? This makes sense when you consider that initially, most Filipinos crossing the Pacific came to work in the fields of the Central Valley.
Back when she was an undergraduate at UCLA, Mabalon had an Oprah-style “aha!” moment, realizing that her own family history was History, with a capital H. That diner her grandfather, Pablo Mabalon, owned for 50 years? It was a cornerstone of the Filipino community in downtown Stockton, when “Little Manila” was home to the largest population of Filipinos outside the Philippines.
“The book really begins here,” Mabalon says, standing at the corner of Lafayette and El Dorado, outside a mini-mall that was part of an urban redevelopment scheme in the 1990s. Over the roar of a Highway 4 exit, the result of another urban redevelopment in the 1960s, Mabalon acknowledges that it’s hard to imagine this was the heart of Filipino America in the 1920s and '30s. It took her years of digging through records, photos and letters to build a picture of a world lost to all but a few people old enough to remember personally.
After the U.S. took the Philippines as a colony in 1902, many young people made their way over the Pacific to seek their fortunes closer to the heart of the empire. Some came for a university education, only to discover professional fields were not open to “brown people” at the time. Others answered promotional campaigns promising farmers fortunes for the taking in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii. Those who tried to organize for better working conditions, once they got wise to the scam, soon found themselves unable to get hired.
So it was that a growing number of Filipinos began to travel a seasonal path between the agricultural heartland of California north to the salmon canneries of Alaska. They made a name for themselves as hard workers, especially cutting asparagus in the Delta. “They were considered some of the most skilled, highly efficient workers,” Mabalon says. She goes on to muse drolly that “farmers had some racist reasons why they wanted Filipinos. They said, 'Well, we’re shorter, we’re closer to the ground, and our skin is impervious to the peat dust that’s here in the Delta.' ”
Downtown Stockton became a community center for this peripatetic population. Mabalon says a farmworker could list her granddad’s diner as a permanent address and collect his mail there. Foremen roamed the streets, putting together crews to harvest crops like lettuce, celery, tomatoes and peaches. “People would come here to find out where their cousins or relatives had gone,” Mabalon says.
“By the 1920s, this was the heart of Filipino America. You have almost 100,000 living on the West Coast on the eve of World War II.” From February through May, asparagus season in the Delta and San Joaquin Valley, you might find 15,000 Filipinos living in single-resident-occupancy hotels in Stockton, attending local churches, or hanging out at union halls, pool halls and taxi dance halls.
Taxi dance halls? Originally developed in San Francisco, these were private clubs where taxi dancers (women) were paid to dance with patrons (men). Most Filipinos in Stockton were young men, sent by their families on the presumption they'd send money back to the hometown for a few years, then return. Thanks to segregation -- and ethnic tensions with Chinese- and Japanese-Americans -- many Filipino men found themselves hard up for a date on Saturday night.
At a place like the Rizal Social Club (see photo), they could dress to the nines and dance with White and Mexican women. What about anti-miscegenation laws? Mabalon says a club owner in those days could pay off local police to look the other way.
There were Filipino bands, of course, playing all the big hits of the Jazz Age, but if they cut records, it would be news to Professor Mabalon. One tantalizing hint of that era: the great Nat King Cole took up the iconic love song "Dahil Sa'yo," or "Because of you." Cole wasn't the only non-Filipino to tackle the Tagalog lyrics, but I dare you to get the song out of your head after listening to this beautiful rendition.
As they had in Hawaii, Filipinos fought against racial and economic oppression in the fields. Stockton local Larry Itliong was among those who started organizing agricultural workers in the 1930s. The first major agricultural strike after World War II was an asparagus strike in California.
In 1965, he helped organize what was called the Delano Grape Strike, demanding the federal minimum wage. In the past, farmers used ethnic groups against each other to crush labor actions, but this time, Mexicans under the leadership of Cesar Chavez joined the Filipinos, and the rest is history.
Like so many groups that started picking fruit and produce in California, Filipinos eventually moved up and out. After U.S. immigration laws were liberalized in 1965, many more Filipinos immigrated from the Old Country, and most of them settled in big cities on the West Coast.
Stockton city officials built a freeway off-ramp just next to Little Manila. The neighborhood began to crumble. One by one, many of the SRO hotels were torn down. The building that housed Pablo Mabalon's diner was torn down in 1999, replaced by a McDonald's restaurant and a 76 gas station. Whatever the impetus, it's not an area most visitors would want to linger in today.
But Mabalon has big dreams for this neighborhood. She helped found the Little Manila Foundation, which fended off the demolition of three remaining buildings from the era. They put up street banners with photographs recalling the glory days. They got the area designated as a historic site. The Foundation hopes to restore those buildings, and set up a museum inside one of them.
Why bother? Mabalon says Little Manila has stories to tell us, about Filipino history, California history and, ultimately, American history.