Leaving a Legacy: Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Filipino-American Champion and Historian

5 min
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon was a professor of history at San Francisco State University, co-founder of the Little Manila Foundation, and a board member of the Filipino National Historical Society.  (Courtesy of Gena Roma Photography)

Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a passionate activist who dedicated her life to chronicling the rich Filipino-American history in California and the U.S., died unexpectedly last week from an asthma attack.

Mabalon was a professor of history at San Francisco State University, co-founder of the Little Manila Foundation, and a board member of the Filipino National Historical Society. She was also a daughter, wife, sister and auntie.

She died while vacationing in Hawaii, just shy of her 46th birthday — which would have been Friday.

Her 2013 book — "Little Manila Is in the Heart" — charted the growth of the Filipino community in her hometown of Stockton, beginning with farm workers who came to pick crops in the early 20th century. The book includes her own family’s story.

“Her book was no little feat,” said Dillon Delvo, who co-founded Stockton’s Little Manila Foundation with Mabalon. “Some academics thought it wasn’t academic enough to include her personal story, to write from a point of view. But if you represent a community that’s almost been destroyed, you don’t have that luxury.”

The northern end of Little Manila, El Dorado and Washington streets, in the late 1920s. (Photo: Frank Mancao. Courtesy of the Filipino American National Historic Society)

She collected oral histories, old newspaper articles, shreds of people’s memories, and photographs to paint a unique portrait of Little Manila, which was home to the largest community of Filipinos outside of the Philippines until many of its buildings were slated for demolition in the 1960s.

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"When I talk to old-timers, they talk about driving down El Dorado Street and calling that the 'Filipino highway,'" Mabalon told The California Report’s Rachael Myrow in a 2013 interview. “You could just wave and roll down your window and everyone would be out on the street saying, ‘Hey! Look who’s come visiting from San Francisco, or from Salinas, and from L.A.’ It’s amazing to see what we see now as a ghost town, but you have old timers telling me, 'San Francisco and L.A. those weren’t fun cites. Stockton was the place to be.'"

Myrow talked to Mabalon about her efforts to preserve those buildings as they stood together next to cars buzzing past on Highway 4.

“What was the heart of the Filipino community became for white Stockton just a place to build a byway for more affluent people to get from point A to point B,” Mabalon said. “They decided to run it right through one of the densest areas of downtown Stockton because they figure, 'Oh it’s just these poor brown people, it’s Chinatown, it’s Little Manila, it’s the Mexican-American area.' You know, who cares?”

Pablo 'Ambo' Mabalon (left), Dawn Mabalon's grandfather, stands in front of his Lafayette Lunch Counter, which was in the heart of Little Manila. (Courtesy Little Manila Rising)

Mabalon told The California Report about farm workers who picked asparagus by day, then got dressed up at night to go to “taxi dance clubs” in Stockton.

“There was a song called 'Dahil Sa Iyo,' which essentially means ‘Because of you.’ So it’s a Filipino love ballad. Nat King Cole actually even did it," said Mabalon.

The Little Manila Foundation is still fighting to preserve three remaining historic buildings as Stockton recovers from bankruptcy. It’s become a gathering spot for youth, offering after-school classes in Filipino history, culture and art.

Dillon Delvo, the foundation’s co-founder, said for Mabalon, studying history and being an activist weren’t two different things.

“What she was about was how does history actually inform where we need to be standing today?" Delvo said. "What should be guiding our future? What were those mistakes? And make sure it never happens again.”

He said her loss is devastating to Filipinos, who are among the largest Asian-American communities in the Golden State.

“This Friday, she was supposed to be ... presenting in Washington, D.C. She brought our people to the table. She forced herself in, brought in her own chair, put it in the middle of the table, and said 'We’re here,'" Delvo said.

Mabalon was working on a biography of Larry Itliong when she died. Itliong's organizing of Filipino farm workers helped launch the United Farmworkers Union.

“My grandparents were farm workers. My dad was a farm worker. He knew Larry Itliong. And I didn't even know who Larry Itliong was until I went to college," Mabalon said. "Now I’m going to cry. Now I’m crying. You know, what a tragedy. I knew who Cesar Chavez was. We had a Cesar Chavez Library. But, you know, I think it's such a tragedy that that so many young Filipino-Americans grew up without knowing who these central, pivotal role that we’ve played in American history.”

Dawn Bohulano Mabalon (Gena Roma Photography)

Mabalon did complete a children’s book about Itliong, titled “Journey For Justice: the Life of Larry Itliong.” Delvo said she sent the proofs to the printer on the day she died.

“That's inspiring, for young Filipino kids to realize we haven't just contributed lumpia, dancing and Bruno Mars. We've given to one of the major social movements that changed this nation, that our elderly uncles and fathers and grandfathers, sacrificed so much so that workers today can have a living wage and better working conditions. And if we knew that, that could be so inspiring for all of us to think of the different things that we could do in our lives. No matter how humble, or ordinary, or poor we are,” said Mabalon.

So we say goodbye to Dawn Bohulano Mabalon. Dahil sa iyo (because of you), so many Californians have learned about the Filipino history of this state.

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