Q&A: California history shaped by Stockton’s Little Manila

On Oct. 2, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB123 requiring public schools to teach their students about the contributions of Filipino Americans to the state’s fields of plenty and the farmworkers movement that transformed American labor.

Many Californians don’t know that Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers movement were inspired by Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and other Filipino farmworkers who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and started the Delano grape workers strike of 1965. “The students of California need to learn that the sacrifices made by both Filipino and Latino workers benefited all California,” Huerta said.

Much of that history is detailed in “Little Manila Is In The Heart,” a new book by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University and a daughter of Stockton’s once-vibrant Little Manila District – for half a century the apex of Filipino life in America. Little Manila – like Sacramento’s Japantown and Chinatown – was wiped out by urban redevelopment in the 1950s and ’60s. But its legacy lives on in California’s fields and levees, said Mabalon, 41.

What do Californians need to know about Filipino Americans?

They built the Central Valley with their bare hands in asparagus, tomatoes, celery, peaches, tomatoes and grapes. Filipino and Mexican immigrants and their families turned California into the seventh-largest economy in the world. There are still Filipinos working in the fields and sorting asparagus with Mexican immigrants. The first seven Filipinos – called Indios by the Spaniards – arrived on a Spanish galleon that landed around Morro Bay on Oct. 18, 1587.

When did the first Filipinos arrive in the Delta?

In 1898, a Filipino sailor known only as Villareal jumped ship in San Francisco, made his way to Stockton, harvested fruit, worked on the railroad and encouraged others to settle here. The Philippines was a U.S. colony from 1899 to 1946, and California farmers were desperate for Filipinos because Chinese, Punjab Sikhs and Japanese laborers had been outlawed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other draconian acts of Congress and President Teddy Roosevelt. Many Americans felt the U.S. had brutally and unfairly conquered the Philippines. To answer accusations of imperialism, the U.S. sponsored several hundred Filipino students at UC Berkeley, University of the Pacific, UCLA, the University of Washington and other universities. The idea was “we’re going to teach these savages how to rule themselves.” Some of the earliest Filipinos picking crops in the Delta were UOP students in 1914.

The university students came back wearing suits, and American history, culture and languages were taught in public schools all over the Philippines, talking about America as a place where poor men become rich and men who live in log cabins can become president. So people would trade the family water buffalo for passage over, believing all one had to do was go to America for a couple of years to bring your family out of poverty. Many came in their teens, not realizing they were going to have to work in the fields.

The peak of immigration was from 1920 to 1930. The 1930 California census counts about 30,000 Filipinos, the vast majority living in the Delta on Ryer Island, in Rio Vista, Locke, Isleton, Walnut Grove, Elk Grove, from Florin all the way south to Tracy. Stockton was the hub. Filipinos would work asparagus from February to June, harvest tomatoes, peaches and summer crops or go work in the salmon canneries in Alaska from June to August, then come back to Lodi, Stockton, Delano and the Coachella Valley to harvest grapes from late August through October. When there was no more work, people would stay in Stockton’s Little Manila until asparagus season. By World War II, there were almost 100,000 Filipinos in Hawaii and on the mainland – 80 percent of the asparagus workers were Filipino.

What were the borders of Little Manila and what was life like there?

Stockton was rigidly segregated, no people of color could live north of Main Street, and Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, Mexicans and Filipinos lived south of Main, known as “the Oriental Quarter.” Filipinos established more than 40 businesses in Little Manila, a six-block area bounded by East Washington Street, East Sonora Street, South Center Street and South San Joaquin Street. There were six- and seven-story single resident occupancy hotels, restaurants, pool halls, barbershops, markets, churches, auto mechanics and social clubs. My grandfather opened the Lafayette Lunch Counter on East Lafayette Street, where Carlos Bulosan, author of the classic “America Is In The Heart,” got his mail. Stockton became such a vibrant community because Filipina women came over from Hawaii in huge numbers in 1924. People were 10 to 15 deep on the sidewalks. You’d have Filipinos from all over the nation coming to Stockton for the Filipino Fourth of July Parade.

There were still signs north of Main Street saying “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” in 1945. There was a huge Klan rally in Stockton in 1924, Lodi was the headquarters of the Klan and mobs would come into Little Manila from 1920 to 1942 to beat up Filipinos.

What became of Little Manila?

In 1955, Stockton decided to wipe out nine blocks of downtown, obliterating Chinatown, a good deal of Japantown and several Filipino businesses. The dagger in the heart of Little Manila was the Highway 4 connector between I-5 and Highway 99 in 1968. Filipino seniors were put out on the streets with barely anything, and given nothing. I watched my grandfather’s diner demolished in 1997. Redevelopment was modern, progressive, and it was very difficult to argue against freeway construction. After a four-year battle, we finally built a Filipino Center in downtown Stockton to house some of the businesses and people displaced in Little Manila. A lot of Filipinos moved from Stockton to Sacramento, many to attend Sacramento State University.

Filipinos are now the largest Asian ethnic group in California at 1.2 million and the largest Asian ethnic group in Sacramento County. What’s left in Stockton?

At Ilo Ilo Circle, Filipinos still congregate at the Filipino Center to play poker and Pusoy Dos, a rummy variation. Every year, we do tours of the Little Manila Historic Site. I still visit the Best Lumpia restaurant in Stockton, and Papa Urb in Tracy, where they serve oxtail stew, pancit, adobo and pork and chicken barbecue. Interestingly, the Filipino population of San Joaquin County jumped from 19,232 in 2000 to 27,113 in 2010 as Bay Area housing prices pushed thousands to find more affordable housing.

Little Manila’s larger legacy is that the UFW was able to move people to take seriously the plight of farmworkers and to care about their working conditions and wages. The tragedy is that most people think the UFW made everything better in the fields while work is still done in absolutely brutal conditions with poor wages. On Saturday we will hold a symposium, “Larry Itliong & The Farm Labor Movement” at San Joaquin Delta College. Our 2014 Filipino American History calendar is available at www.littlemanila.org and all proceeds benefit the preservation efforts of the Little Manila Foundation.