In the late 1970s, my family and I lived in an apartment on South San Joaquin Street in Little Manila neighborhood of Stockton, California. While I’m proud of this history, my family wasn’t unique.
The Central Valley city was once home to the largest population of Filipinos in the twentieth century. If most Filipino Americans did a little digging, they would likely find that their relatives and direct ancestors visited Stockton or called Little Manila home. Maybe they strolled through Little Manila along El Dorado Street and walked over to Cirilo Juanitas’s Candy Store and Pool Hall, or had their clothes tailored at Los Filipinos Tailoring shop. Maybe like my family, they ate at Emerald’s Restaurant, on the corner of Hunter and Lafayette Street, which was formerly the Filipino Recreation Center.
They could have bumped into the renowned writer Carlos Bulosan, author of America Is in the Heart, eating lunch at the Lafayette Lunch Counter, whose owner Pablo “Ambo” Mabalon usually gave the poor writer his meals for free. Perhaps they were friends with Stockton resident and one of the most important Filipino American leaders of the twentieth century, Larry Itliong. It’s possible. As the late and great Filipino American historian Dr. Dawn Mabalon always said about her own research, “All roads lead to Stockton.”
Unfortunately, Filipino Americans usually don’t inquire after or pass along their collective history. Ask a Filipino American if they know about Little Manila or Itliong, and, more often than not, you’ll get a “that’s not my history,” or “what are you talking about?” Unless they were able to take a Filipino American history course in college, or their city had a chapter of the Filipino American National Historical—which has been preserving, documenting and teaching Filipino American history to its communities since 1982—most Filipino Americans do not know their own or their larger collective history.
That’s why Dawn Mabalon’s work researching, archiving, and advocating for the dissemination of Filipino American history in Stockton and her research on Itliong is invaluable. Mabalon wrote Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California, (Duke University Press 2013) and she also wrote the first book about Itliong, a children’s book called Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong (Bridge and Delta Publishing 2018). I am grateful to have co-written the latter with her, while Filipino American artist Andre Sibayan created the illustrations, all of which were based on her research and curated historical photographs.
Mabalon passed away on August 10, 2018. While she never saw the final hardbound version of the book, her legacy lives on. I move forward with this book, the first illustrated children’s book about a Filipino American leader, and the last book she wrote, with the mission of spreading Itliong’s history to every Filipino American in the United States.
An Introduction to Larry Itliong
Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 when he was fifteen years old and immediately began working throughout the country as a farm laborer and in the salmon canneries of Alaska. His heart was set on becoming an attorney and seeking justice for the poor. But the poverty he lived through and violent racism he and Filipinos encountered all but barred him from getting the education he initially sought. He never became an attorney, but he became a storied Filipino American labor leader and organizer, leading labor organizations in Alaska and throughout the West Coast.
He called Stockton his hometown while he recruited more than a thousand new members to join the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). He was so good at what he did, union leaders asked him to leave for Delano to organize Filipino grape workers. It was there in Delano, a small town four hours outside of Stockton, that he led the Filipino grape workers at Filipino Hall to vote to go on strike on September 7, 1965. The next day, the Delano Grape Strike began, and more than 2,000 Filipino farmworkers, members of AWOC, marched off the vineyards to demand $1.40 an hour, 25 cents a box, and the right to form a union. The farmworkers had a lot on the line. If they went on strike, they wouldn’t get paid.
Itliong soon contacted Cesar Chavez and asked Mexican farmworkers to join the strike with the Filipinos. He understood that all workers had to stand together in their fight for justice. Chavez didn’t think his people were ready to go on strike. But he went back to the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), and he and Dolores Huerta spoke to the nearly one thousand NFWA members to discuss the strike. In a unanimous vote, the Mexicans joined the Filipinos in the Great Delano Grape Strike. A year later, AWOC and NFWA merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The Delano Grape Strike lasted for five years. As director of the UFW, Chavez took the limelight, but co-founder and former assistant director Larry Itliong has been cast in the historical shadows. This was one of the most important social justice and economic movements in American history, yet so many inside and outside the Filipino American community are unaware.
It was the first time Mexicans and Filipinos spoke as one for the rights of workers. They used Filipino Hall as their union hall and strike kitchen, cooked for one another, and picketed together. Together as the UFW, they began to persuade grocery stores to stop carrying Delano grapes. Over the course of five years, this strike was internationally known and supported by major celebrities and politicians of the time, with people from across the United States donating money, food, and clothing to the UFW. The strikers also received Christmas gifts for their children from around the world. Filipinos began this strike, and this marginalized community grew to include other immigrant communities. In the end, they won.
In 1970, more than thirty grape growers in Delano met with the UFW and agreed to a pay increase, medical insurance plan, and established controls over toxic pesticides. This paved the way for the UFW to continue to fight for the rights of farmworkers.
The Heart and Soul of a Community
But why is it important to remember this history? Some would say we’ve done fine over the last forty years not knowing this information. Dillon Delvo, executive director of the advocacy group Little Manila Rising in Southside Stockton, can explain.
Teaching Filipino Americans—specifically the youth—about our collective history is about “battling for the Filipino American soul,” Delvo says. Without understanding our history, Filipinos are content to just fill the economic and labor needs of its current oppressor, without critical analysis of who they are. “When we talk about the battle for our souls, it’s about standing together, despite this history, despite compounded generational trauma. [The battleground] is where you stand with your people and acknowledge this marginalized history. It’s only when we acknowledge this shared history, can we then stand together and fulfill our own needs and our own dreams.”
Founded in 1999 by Delvo and Mabalon, Little Manila Rising’s original goal was to save Stockton’s Little Manila neighborhood and have it recognized as a historic site.
“We told the powers that be, we live here. We have a right to say we don’t want these buildings destroyed,” Delvo says. “No one thought the children of the farmworkers would demand this right.”
The nonprofit has grown into a hub of Filipino American arts and culture led by youth educators, with an after-school program that introduces students to the history of their marginalized community. The nonprofit was able to save the last three remaining Little Manila buildings and earn the area a historic landmark designation.
Delvo’s passion for this cause likely comes from his father, labor organizer Rudy Delvo. It was the elder Delvo who met with Itliong and successfully recruited him to join the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
“We’re doing the work. We are on the battlefield with this book,” Delvo says about Journey for Justice. The book has made its way into curricula at UCLA, San Francisco State University, the University of Michigan, and school districts in California for the fall of 2020. Locally, Little Manila Rising has worked it into their after-school program and donated a copy to every school in Stockton.
“If we don’t have the proper context of who we are as a people, in the same way the Mexican American community understands Cesar Chavez and his legacy as a standard for youth to live up to, then what do Filipino Americans live up to?” Delvo asks. “What is our standard?”
“The proper response to Dawn and Larry Itliong’s legacy is to learn your history, tell your story, and empower your community,” he continues. “We as a community need to read this history together and then answer this question: how do we form Filipino American communities for the future where our youth understand the legacies we need to live up to?”
The answer is quite clear for Little Manila Rising: focus on the youth and teach them their history to create the heart and soul of the community’s future. Delvo understands it’s a generational shift. It takes time. While the battle hasn’t been won yet, it all starts by reading about Larry Itliong and Filipinos in the farm labor movement.
A Personal Journey
My own history of art, writing, and politicism propels me forward on a Journey for Justice national book tour. I’ve made it to four cities so far: Delano, Seattle, New York, and Washington, D.C. I have more than a dozen stops left, taking me to Texas, Alaska, up and down California, to the Midwest, and back to the East Coast. At each stop, I talk about Itliong and why every Filipino American should know who he is. National and local community leaders honor and celebrate both Itliong and Mabalon’s work and the legacy they leave behind at each tour stop.
This wasn’t the plan when I started this work. In 2016, I asked Mabalon, a dear friend of mine, if she could write a children’s book with me about Larry Itliong. She was the only researcher I knew who could write this book. She was working on her own Itliong project for college students. There were no books that my children could read specifically about Filipino American leaders. I told her that this book would solve that problem, not just for my children, but for other Filipino families and K-12 teachers as well. She agreed wholeheartedly. With illustrator Sibayan, we began a fundraising campaign to get the book done, along with jump-starting an eight-book series about Filipino American leaders for young students in fourth through ninth grades. We had over 500 contributors from an online fundraising campaign. We set to work, and, in less than two years, we finished the book.
On the day I mailed the final edits to the printer, Mabalon passed away. We had just gotten off the phone with her, our last celebratory meeting. We were finally done with the book! She was on vacation in Kauai; Andre and I were in California. Soon after, she went snorkeling and had an asthma attack. We were devastated when the news reached us later in the day.
While she’s not with us, Mabalon’s legacy in our community is still felt. Bridge and Delta Publishing (the publishing house I created) worked closely with many organizations to bring the national book tour to life. One main organization was the Filipino American National Historical Society, which was more than willing to assist, as Mabalon was a FANHS National Trustee and served as the organization’s National Scholar for over a decade. Other key local nonprofit Filipino American and Asian American organizations have supported and sponsored the tour at every stop throughout the United States. We have a public relations agency, Filipina-owned Papalodown Agency, which has given many hours to our cause.
There is even a thorough Journey for Justice teachers’ guide, created by Pin@y Educational Partnerships San Francisco, that is provided to each community for free. Pinay rapper Ruby Ibarra, a sponsored Mastercard artist and performer at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, features the Journey for Justice book in her live session video for the song “Here.” Through these coalitions, I have learned that we can unite to spread the history of Larry Itliong.
In the early stages of drafting the book, Mabalon and I joked it was a movement we were creating. What we didn’t know then was that we weren’t joking, and that this was her last gift as a historian of our people. It is true about her research and this movement too, that all roads lead to Stockton. And it is through Mabalon that I also came to understand that our collective memory must always hold the story of Larry Itliong. I know she would want me to say to the communities I visit, remember our history, know and understand who Itliong was, and tell your own story. Know history, know self.
Our immigrant histories heal and empower us to give back to our communities. We learn the importance of standing together, to recognize the need to work in solidarity with other immigrant and marginalized communities. Many have started and sustain this work already. We must make sure to carry it to the youngest in our communities.
Gayle Romasanta was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to Stockton’s Little Manila in the late 1970s. She is the co-author of Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong and the founder of Bridge and Delta Publishing.