Book Review: A Big Hearted Book on Little Manila

Stockton's Little Manila, late 1920s (Photo by Frank Manaco, courtesy of the Filipino American National Historical Society)

Dawn Bohulano Mabalon has deep connections to community and family. It is evident in her new book, Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Duke Univ. Press).

At an August 3 reading sponsored by Arkipelago Books and Philippine American Artists & Writers (PAWA) in San Francisco, I was moved by her love for and homage to our Filipino American predecessors who courageously paved the way, one of whom was my grandfather, Celestino T. Alfafara. 

She recounts a 1950s incident during his capacity as grand master of the Caballeros de Dimas Alang, when he had to provide an affidavit to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, swearing that the CDA was not Masonic, but “rather, they were a patriotic organization dedicated to Philippine political independence and the preservation of Philippine language and culture, and they only copied Masonic insignia and regalia.”

Mabalon’s book began as a dissertation at Stanford University, growing from her “interest in the politics of historical memory, the power of place to shape ethnic identities and memories, and the ways in which the Filipina/o community tries not to forget its ethnic neighborhood.”

Mabalon’s connection to Carlos Bulosan goes deeper than the inspiration for the book’s title; the story about it is another fascinating highlight of her work.

Little Manila is in the Heart focuses on Filipino community and identity in the city of Stockton, located in the San Joaquin Valley of California. She eventually broadens the scope, applying the “politics of historical memory and the demands and logic of capitalism that led to the urban redevelopment policies that caused the destruction of much of the community in the 1960s and 1990s.”

Extensive acknowledgments indicate that one driving force in her substantial research comes from stories passed on to her by many of her family members. She acknowledges her late father, Ernesto Tirona Mabalon, for his “encyclopedic knowledge about our community history, translation skills, and guidance.”

Oral histories from family and community provided a rich source of historical information of the Stockton Filipino community. Moreover, she carefully and magnificently reconstructs decades of life in the Little Manila neighborhood through her study of period newspapers, census information, government records and archival collections of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) Stockton chapter. 

Author Dawn Buholano Mabalon at her book launch in Stockton, California (Photo courtesy of Dawn Buholano Mabalon)

Mabalon’s connection to Carlos Bulosan goes deeper than the inspiration for the book’s title; the story about it is another fascinating highlight of her work. Dawn’s uncle, Claro, actually the character “Claro” in America is in the Heart, was a close friend of Bulosan.

Elsewhere in the book, she describes how they served together in the Committee for the Protection of Filipino Rights (CPFR) in the late 1930s. Bulosan became part of a group of left-wing writers advocating for communities to work together for citizenship rights, while Uncle Claro was a teacher turned labor activist. Even more intriguing is that Bulosan used the author’s grandfather’s diner, the Lafayette Lunch Counter, as his permanent address in Stockton.

Dawn learned that her Lolo would provide meals for free to Bulosan because, according to her father, Lolo “couldn’t bear to see Filipinas/os starve.” In return, Bulosan gave him a signed copy of America is in the Heart. Following up on Uncle Claro’s accounts, Mabalon studied Bulosan’s papers at the University of Washington. There, she read in a letter from Bulosan’s girlfriend that she had sent her letters to “Pablo” in Stockton, thus corroborating the author’s grandfather Pablo “Ambo” Mabalon’s direct and meaningful relationship with Bulosan.

Filipinos gather to play cards in the camp after a long day in the fields, 1930s (Photo courtesy of the Filipino Oral History Project)

Mabalon’s work reminds us of the precious importance of engaging in conversation with our elders. As a fellow third generation Filipina American, almost twenty years older than the author, I had often felt alone in seeking out the stories of my grandparents and ancestors, then writing about them in order to keep them alive for all generations. Mabalon—author, professor, and community activist—sets the bar for projects such as these to new heights. Justly so, because “A community worth saving is a community worth writing about. And vice versa.”

Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California can be purchased at All proceeds will benefit the preservation of Little Manila in Stockton. Dawn Buholano Mabalon will have book signings at the Magnificent Festival on Saturday, Oct. 5, and at the Filipino American History Day event at the Asian Art Museum on Sunday Oct. 6, from 1pm to 4 pm.

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

A third-generation Filipina American, Lisa Suguitan Melnick’s life is a colorful mélange of multicultural experiences.  She eats adobo with chopsticks, serves miso shiru alongside pansit, drives a German car and adopted a French dog. She is writing vignettes for her memoir, Eat All You Can & More stories.