Growing up in Stockton, California, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, my upbringing was similar to that of every other American student. I discovered Christopher Columbus, the founding fathers and the civil war. Even though I grew up in one of the most racially diverse cities in America, with 78% of the population identifying as people of color, I had little to no understanding of how people who made up my community arrived there. In my mind, immigration was simply about seeking a better life, coming to America, and then achieving the American dream.
I also grew up with a particular resentment towards Stockton. It was boring, dangerous and ugly. In my young mind, suburban development has zapped the land of all life and character. I saw college as an opportunity to leave Stockton to find a world with more to offer. From my perspective, the message that was repeated to me throughout my college career at Stockton was clear: “Nothing matters here; there is better to be found elsewhere”.
Unbeknownst to me, on my morning commute to school, I passed an unassuming McDonald’s restaurant and gas station. Before I graduated from high school, I learned that this development was built on the demolition site of one of the last remaining blocks of the historic Little Manila community in 1999, which existed alongside our historic Chinese and Japanese American communities. Two decades earlier, the late Dr. Dawn Mabalon and Dillon Delvo returned to Stockton as recent college graduates to find that the community they grew up in was under threat from urban development. They created a community coalition that helped establish the Little Manila Historic Site, protecting eight city blocks of remaining businesses, homes, and other historic buildings. .
In high school, I volunteered at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in their archives. A few months later, I learned that a local organization, Little Manila Rising, was looking for help in cataloging items found in steamer trunks before they were sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. . What I learned in my work with Little Manila Rising and in my ethnic studies course completely reshaped the way I see and understand the community that raised me.
In the 1940s, Stockton had the largest Filipino population in the world outside of the Philippines. Seeking economic and educational opportunities, as well as adventure, thousands of young Filipino men immigrated to the West Coast before World War II. Due to the annexation of the Philippines by the United States, as established in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Filipinos were considered U.S. nationals, allowing them to travel in and around U.S. territories and circumvent laws immigration restrictions, such as the Chinese Exclusion Law. in 1882, and attracted over one hundred thousand people from 1907 to 1933 to come to the United States as American nationals. As a result, Filipinos were highly sought after by sugar plantation owners in Hawaii and vegetable growers in California. This does not mean, however, that Filipinos are not victims of the discrimination and racism that underlies anti-immigrant and anti-Asian policies and attitudes.
After the levees were built throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (completed largely by Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century), the farmlands of California’s Central Valley became some of the most fertile in America. Industrialized agriculture required cheap mass labor. When young Filipino men arrived in America, they often found that the abundant opportunities promised often amounted to low-paying service jobs and agricultural labor due to discriminatory hiring practices. Located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Stockton, and by extension, Little Manila, established itself as the place a Filipino could go to find family and friends. In memory, America is in the heart by Carlos Bulosan, he writes: “I wanted to stop and walk around the city, but some tramps told me that there were thousands of Filipinos in Stockton. I stayed on the same train until it got to Sacramento, where I boarded another that took me to Stockton. I asked a few tramps where I could find Chinatown, because there I would be sure to find my compatriots.
In addition to poor working and living conditions, these men also suffered from California’s anti-miscegenation laws. Sending a child from home to America was very expensive. Many families chose to send sons who could earn money. Many Filipino families thought their sons would return in a few years, so there would be no need to establish families in America. However, due to the lack of substantial salaries, many would stay much longer than originally planned. At some point in the 1930s, it was recorded that for every 14 Filipino men, there was one Filipino woman. With anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting multiracial relationships and marriages, this group of mostly single people formed organizations like fraternal lodges, women’s societies, and labor unions as a way to build community and help each other in the beyond the typical familiar structures facing the creeping race. discrimination.
After World War II, America saw an increase in Filipino immigration following the enactment of the War Brides Act (1945). Still, there were several notable fraternities in Stockton. In particular, the Legionarios del Trabajo, which was established in 1942, collected steamer trunks brought to America by these men. After individuals passed away, the fellowship would gather members’ leftover items and place them in steamer chests and suitcases for family members or loved ones who might one day come to collect them, creating time capsules of a perspective rarely documented in American history. . The trunks were discovered by Antonio Somera, who had found them hidden in the basement of the Daguhoy Lodge after moving his martial arts school there (the meeting place of the Legionarios del Trabajo).
During my internship at the Smithsonian, I continued to work cataloging parts of these steamer trunks for Little Manila Rising and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I also worked with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to create a Smithsonian Learning Lab collection inspired by both the objects in the Steam Chests and the work of Dr. Dawn Mabalon, co-founder of Little Manila Rising, who was an authoritative voice in the search for Filipino-American immigration, particularly in Stockton.
I am grateful for the opportunity to showcase my community’s story on a national scale. With only one of twenty-five trunks and suitcases brought to the National Museum of America History, due to storage capacity, I hope the remaining trunks in Stockton will soon receive the proper care and attention this priceless collection deserves. The work on this collection at the Smithsonian, I believe, serves as an example of the transformative nature of preserved local histories. The story of Little Manila redefined the narrative I held of my town, as I know it does for many other young Stockonians. I hope this story of my community will inspire students from similar backgrounds to recognize the courageous and multifaceted stories of struggle and perseverance in their immigrant communities, new and old. Little Manila’s perseverance today is a testament to the importance of historic preservation to local communities nationwide in its goal of maintaining identity. Hopefully, the work and resources created in collaboration with Little Manila Rising, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the National Museum of American History can help enlighten students in Stockton and those from similar communities about how immigrant experiences create a sense of identity. in the history of a community, worthy of preservation.