Undiscovering the Hidden Histories of California’s Filipino Community

A Smithsonian intern shares her personal journey in research and preservation of the immigrant community history found within her hometown of Stockton, California

50 plus men in corresponding lodge regalia are posed in four staggering rows in a gathering hall.
1947 Legionarios del Trabajo member photo, taken at the Daguhoy Lodge in Stockton, California. Courtesy of Katherine Parrilla, during her time as an intern with Little Manila Rising.

Growing up in Stockton, California, the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, my education was similar to that of every other American student. I learned about Christopher Columbus, the founding fathers, and the Civil War. Even though I grew up in one of America’s most racially diverse cities, with 78% of the population identifying as people of color, I had little to no understanding of how the people who made up my community came to be there. In my mind, immigration was a simple matter of looking for a better life, coming to America, and then achieving the American dream.

I also grew up holding a particular resentment towards Stockton. It was boring, dangerous, and ugly. In my young mind, suburban development zapped the land of all life and character. I looked to college as the opportunity to leave Stockton to find a world with more to offer. From my perspective, the message repeated to me throughout my academic career in Stockton was clear: "nothing is important here; there are better things to find elsewhere."

Unknown to me, on my morning route to school each morning, I passed by an unassuming McDonald’s restaurant and gas station. Before graduating 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 only to find the community they grew up in was being threatened by urban development. They created a community coalition that helped to establish the Little Manila Historic Site, protecting eight blocks of businesses, homes, and other remaining historic buildings. I frequently passed by banners marking the Little Manila neighborhood, along Lafayette Street, but always thought little of it.

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 cataloging items found in steamer trunks before they were to be sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. What I learned during my work with Little Manila Rising, and in my Ethnic Studies class, completely reshaped the way I viewed and understood the community that raised me.

By the 1940s, Stockton had the largest Filipino population in the world outside of the Philippines. Searching for economic and educational opportunities, as well as adventure thousands of young Filipino men immigrated to the West Coast prior to World War II. Due to the annexation of the Philippines by the United States as established in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Filipino people were deemed U.S. nationals, which allowed them to travel in and around U.S. territories and circumvent restrictive immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and attracted over one hundred thousand people from 1907 to 1933 to come to the U.S. as U.S. nationals. As a result, Filipino people were highly sought after by sugar plantation owners in Hawai’i and vegetable farmers in California. This did not mean, however, that Filipino people did not experience discrimination and racism that undergirded anti- immigrant and anti-Asian policies and attitudes.

After the construction of the levees throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (completed largely by Chinese immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century), farmland throughout the California Central Valley became some of the most fertile in America. Industrialized agriculture demanded 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 where a Filipino person could go to look for family and friends. In the memoir, America Is In The Heart by Carlos Bulosan, he writes, “I wanted to stop and walk around town, but some of the hoboes told me there were thousands of Filipinos in Stockton. I remained on the same train until it got to Sacramento, where I boarded another that took me to Stockton. I asked some of the hoboes where I could find Chinatown, for there I would be sure to find my countrymen.”

The translated English version of Dr. Jose Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” was found in one of the collected trunks. Courtesy of Katherine Parrilla, during her time as an intern with Little Manila Rising.

In addition to poor working and living conditions, these men also suffered under California’s anti-miscegenation laws. To send one child from home to America was very expensive. Many families opted to send sons who could earn money. Many Filipino families believed that 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 wages, many would stay much longer than originally intended. At one point in the 1930s it was recorded that for every 14 Filipino men, there was one Filipina woman. With anti-miscegenation laws barring multi-racial relations and marriages, this group of mostly bachelors formed organizations like fraternal lodges, women’s societies, and labor unions as a way to build community and aid one another beyond typical familiar structures in the face of rampant racial discrimination.

After World War II, America saw an increase in Filipina immigration after 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 had passed, the fraternity would gather the members’ remaining items and place them in the steamer trunks and suitcases for family members or loved ones who would maybe one day come to collect them, creating time capsules of a rarely documented perspective in American history. The trunks were discovered by Antonio Somera, who had found them hidden away in the basement of the Daguhoy Lodge after moving his martial arts school to that location (the meeting place of the Legionarios del Trabajo).
Patch with the Legionarios del Trabajo organization symbol that was found in one of the collected trunks was likely gifted to dues paying members. Courtesy of Katherine Parrilla, during her time as an intern with Little Manila Rising.

During my internship at the Smithsonian, I have continued to work to catalog the items from 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 steamer trunks and the work of Dr. Dawn Mabalon, the co-founder of Little Manila Rising, who was an authoritative voice in the research of Filipino-American immigration, especially in Stockton.

I am grateful for the opportunity to platform my community’s history on a national scale. With only one of the twenty five trunks and suitcases brought into the National Museum of America History, due to storage capacity, I hope that the remaining trunks in Stockton will soon receive the proper care and attention this invaluable 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 has redefined the narrative I held of my town, as I know it has for many other young Stockonians. I hope this story of my community provides some inspiration for students from similar backgrounds to recognize the brave, multifaceted histories of struggle and perseverance in their immigrant communities, new and old. The perseverance of Little Manila today speaks to the importance of historic preservation for local communities nationally in its aim to maintain 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 to illuminate to Stockton students, and those from similar communities, how immigrant experiences build a sense of identity in a community’s history, worthy of preservation.