Stockton demolished many homes, businesses and community centers in historic Little Manila to build a cross-town freeway in the early 1970s. (Photos courtesy of SPD Historical Archives and Elena Mangahas)
On El Dorado Street in Stockton, only two buildings exist from the city’s original Little Manila neighborhood, though it was once home to the largest Filipino population outside of Manila itself.
Stockton was at the epicenter of Filipino migration in the 1920s, but as a queer and gender non-binary person who grew up in the city generations later, Donald Donaire did not feel supported by the Filipinx community.
“There was this culture that a lot of young people faced — a lot of my friends faced — that if we wanted to live happy lives, successful lives, we had to study and leave Stockton,” Donaire said.
Only when Donaire left Stockton in 2011 and studied at UC San Diego did they learn about the strong legacy of Filipino organizing and activism in their hometown. Now Donaire is one of several Filipinx people who have returned to Stockton as part of a new generation of leaders in the city working to reclaim their history.
“I think we’re definitely building on that legacy here, and really trying to make it more robust and inclusive to be responsive to the pandemic and movements that are happening at the same time for racial justice,” said Donaire.
The Pioneers of Little Manila in Stockton
The history of Filipinos in Stockton dates back a century. After the Philippine-American War, a large influx of Filipino men came to California during the 1920s and '30s to perform cheap labor — in the Central Valley that was mostly farming. Many Filipinos settled in Stockton, and in time built businesses, fraternities, churches and community spaces on El Dorado Street, which became known as Little Manila.
Leatrice Bantillo Perez is a part of the Manang/Manong Generation that pioneered the early days of Little Manila. Filipinx people use manang/manong to show respect to elders, meaning an older sibling, aunt or uncle. At 92 years old, Perez — known as Manang Letty — lived through the establishment of Filipino businesses and culture, while working in farm labor, and eventually serving as the president of the Filipino American National Historical Society chapter in Stockton.
The majority of Filipinos in Stockton during the first wave of migration were bachelors in their 20s. They weren’t allowed to own property or marry white women, and they couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods due to racist housing policies like redlining. Because of this discrimination, Perez remembers that her mother always made time to check in with the young men of the community.
“As we walked down the street, ‘Hello, hello, kamusta kayo?’ You know, very friendly,” Perez said. “And the men felt good because at least somebody recognized them as a human being.”
There were also very few Filipina women or families. By some counts, there were more than a dozen men to each woman during the early years of Little Manila, and Perez said a young woman was lucky if she had 20 suitors. Some suitors, she remembers, would offer to take the whole family to the movies, but Perez’s mother would step in and offer Perez as a chaperone instead.
“My mother would go, ‘Kawawa niman, he is making so little money and he has to pay for the whole family,’ ” Perez said.
Perez and her community were pioneers of a new Filipino American identity — at the same time they banded together and organized efforts to fight for labor rights. In 1939, laborers who picked asparagus went on strike for three days against unfair wage reduction. This is now known as the Good Friday Asparagus Strike.
“Not one Filipino went out to the asparagus fields,” Perez said. “About 7,000 Filipinos did not go into the field.”
The asparagus workers formed a union called the Filipino Agricultural Labor Association, or FALA, to protest their pay cut. Since they worked and lived in company camps on the farms, the striking workers had no place to stay and no food to eat.
“The union and the Filipino community got together and asked the women of the community to do the cooking,” said Perez. “My mother cooked big kettles of chicken stew and some of the men would come and sit on our porch and eat there.”
From the 1930s through the 1950s, the Filipino community in Stockton continued to organize for workers’ rights, fighting for fair wages and safer working conditions. The organizing work didn’t stop even once Filipinos were granted citizenship after World War II, allowing those who fought in the war to own businesses and property and bring wives over from the Philippines.
The Filipinx Force Behind the Farm Labor Movement
As Little Manila began to flourish with independent, family-owned businesses and community spaces, the landscape of agricultural work began to change; a large influx of Latinx farm laborers came to the Central Valley. The workers began to form their own unions and organizing bodies and banded together with the Filipinos to bolster their strength in numbers.
But the Filipino influence is often overlooked.
Many people know about the organizing of the United Farm Workers, and the National Farm Workers Association. They know about Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. But one of the most famous agricultural worker strikes, the 1965 Delano Grape Strike in California, was started by Filipino organizers and spearheaded by Larry Itliong, who characterized himself as a “son of a bitch” when it came to fighting for agricultural workers’ rights.
“I did not learn about Larry Itliong or what was going on here in my place of growing up until I got to college at Long Beach State,” said Gayle Romasanta, a writer, educator and publisher who grew up in Stockton.
When Romasanta’s daughter received a school assignment to write about a figure in history, she realized there was a huge gap in education — there were no children's books on Larry Itliong.
“I thought, my God, don’t tell me I have to write it myself!” Romasanta said.
Romasanta said that there need to be more Filipinx historians and more people committed to sharing the history of Larry Itliong and the Filipinx people within the farm labor movement.
“We have to understand that Filipinos had decades worth of experience going on strike, and demanding for the living wage and working conditions,” Romasanta said. “Once we get to understand that ... then we understand that we can continue that fight and it’s not recreating the wheel.”
The Organizers Against Urban Renewal in Little Manila
Despite having spent decades building up Little Manila, Stockton's local government enacted urban renewal policies that drastically changed the neighborhood from the 1960s to the 1980s. Businesses were shuttered and buildings knocked down to make space for a cross-town freeway.
More on Little Manila
The city’s Filipino community was changing, too. Many of the people who worked in the fields were growing older and the new Filipinx immigrants were professionals and skilled workers, like doctors and nurses who had no connection to the city's Filipino labor organizing history, according to Manang Leatrice Perez.
Little Manila was in grave danger. As more of the manangs and manongs passed, the Filipinx people in Stockton were not only losing their oral historians, but the physical spaces they worked to build together were disappearing, too. The city tore down most of the last remaining block of Little Manila during the Gateway Project in 1999.
Stockton natives Dr. Mabalon and her friend Dillon Delvo found out about this demolition and decided to fight to preserve the history that was being lost.
“Dawn Mabalon was one of the foremost Filipino historians in America,” Delvo said. “And for me, she was one of my best friends, one of my best childhood friends.”
Delvo and Mabalon had left Stockton to study at San Francisco State University and UCLA, respectively, where they each found a deep love for ethnic studies and learned about the history of Little Manila and Filipino farm laborers in the Central Valley.
“Before ethnic studies I saw the experience [of being Filipino] as something you had to deal with, to progress from, that there wasn’t anything special, that it was embarrassing,” Delvo said. “But I realized, wow this is something extremely beautiful.”
Delvo and Mabalon returned to Stockton but were unable to stop the destruction of the neighborhood.
“We started raising funds to mark the area, so that people know this is a significant location not just to Filipino history but also to American history,” Delvo said.
They created an organization called Little Manila Rising (formerly the Little Manila Foundation) to prevent further destruction of the neighborhood, and in 2001 they were successful at getting the city to designate Little Manila as a historical site.
Over the next two decades, Little Manila Rising grew as a historical preservation organization, and implemented an after-school program in partnership with groups like the Filipino American National Historical Society.
In 2018, Mabalon passed from an asthma attack, which was a shock to the many people who organized with her, learned from her and were inspired by her. The most recent version of the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen), which identifies communities with multiple sources of pollution, showed that Stockton is in the 100th percentile of asthma-related issues, in large part due to long-term exposure to pollutants. Those pollutants can also be trace to the cross-town freeway that replaced much of Little Manila.
In her honor, Delvo and Little Manila Rising expanded its focus to include public health and mental health education, environmental justice, immigration rights and educational outreach for COVID-19 in South Stockton, including organizing testing and vaccination centers.
“If you just stay in historic preservation, you do not acknowledge that same freeway that destroyed your community is still killing people today,” Delvo said.
In October 2020, the city demolished the Rizal Social Club building, and today, only two original buildings in Little Manila exist.
The New Generation of Filipinx Leaders in Stockton
Donald Donaire’s life changed when they met Dr. Dawn Mabalon. Mabalon was giving a talk at UC San Diego for her book, and Donaire realized that there were people working to preserve the history of their hometown and organize the Filipinx community in Stockton.
So they decided to come back.
"I didn't know that there was something so deep here in the city that I grew up in or that I call my hometown," they said.
When Donaire returned in 2015, they worked as a youth educator with the Little Manila After School Program (LMASP), which holds workshops for students and partners with other cultural groups, including Healing Pilipinx Uplifting Self & Others, Little Manila Dance Collective and the Kulintang Academy.
The program discusses the history of Little Manilla, Filipinx America and farm labor organizing, but Donaire says the students also learn about anti-Blackness within Asian communities, queer and transgender identity, Latinx history, the effects of COVID-19 on communities of color and more. Each year, the program culminates in a showcase — LMASP’s version of a Pilipino Cultural Night — where the students write and perform their own work.
“I think the reason why Gen Z and the younger generation are so active at this moment is because, especially in COVID, there is so much going on and there are so many material needs that need to be met,” said Donaire. “And there’s so much organizing that’s happening to build bigger networks of care and mutual aid.”
For Donaire, this work allows them the opportunity to not only educate younger people in ethnic studies and community organizing, but also provide space for them to feel supported by the community — something they didn’t have growing up.
“I wanted to change that reality for young people now, coming back to Stockton, coming back to Little Manila,” said Donaire. “And making sure that they know that they can change the community in a way that makes them feel safe and wanted and loved and belong.”