Dawn Bohulano Mabalon’s Short Life Burned Brightly

 Dawn Buholano Mabalon

Dawn Buholano Mabalon

San Francisco and Stockton have always been significant in Filipino American community. Remembering back to my undergraduate years at SF State, I was one of those students that took as many classes I could take that was offered by the College of Ethnic Studies. I focused on Asian American Studies aka Filipino-American Studies. There was something about these classes that came to life -- it was almost an epiphany for me, to learn about MY history as a Filipino-American woman. Often times, I was mistaken for being born in the Philippines because I went to school in Manila and spoke fluent Tagalog.

I met Dawn when I was a professor with the College of Arts and Sciences, Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. It was also around that period of time when my late husband decided to build our home and make Stockton, California our permanent residence. Moving from San Francisco to Stockton, California was quite the change from city life to suburban life. I told Dawn about my move to Stockton, California, and she rest assured me that everything will work out just fine. She said to me, “Maybe, it’s your turn to see first hand how Stockton, California is like, after all you’ve studied and now teach Filipino-American’s culture, history and language.” I took that as a “thumbs-up” signal from her, given that Stockton is her hometown. I still wrestled with the fact that I had to commute to and from Stockton to go to work, and take my son to Sacred Heart Cathedral High in the city. On the other hand, I said to myself, “Filipinos in Stockton – Now, I’m about to be a part of this community.”

One weekend, Dawn called me and told me that she was in Stockton visiting her parents. She said, “Come and meet me over in Downtown, I must introduce you to my friends at Little Manila.” Back then, there was not really a Center as there is one right now. We met somewhere out in the south side of Stockton. She took me around and showed me where “Little Manila” was, or is (the signs under the freeway read, “Little Manila Historic Site”). We walked the neighborhood of what was once the place of her grandfather’s restaurant, the dance hall, and the businesses that once lined up on Lafayette and El Dorado Streets. She introduced me to so many people that I had forgotten their names. She was eager and proud to share her hometown with me, she said to one Manang, “This is Lorraine and she just moved here to Stockton from the City.” Manang replied, “Ok, a friend of Dawn is our friend too!” With those words, it felt golden and legit, through and through.

 "Dawn relived her UCLA years by taking us for a campus tour and told of life events that were insignificant then but after a PhD in Stanford she said they were not only crazy, they're stupid, yet she treasured them. Then she gave out a big guffaw that echoed in the campus. When left in her element her brilliance is blinding. All these Stockton girls looked up to her, including their Manang." (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

"Dawn relived her UCLA years by taking us for a campus tour and told of life events that were insignificant then but after a PhD in Stanford she said they were not only crazy, they're stupid, yet she treasured them. Then she gave out a big guffaw that echoed in the campus. When left in her element her brilliance is blinding. All these Stockton girls looked up to her, including their Manang." (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

That’s Dawn for you – she is admired, loved and well-respected by everyone. Her book, “Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of Filipina/o Community in Stockton” was inspired by her readings of Carlos Bulosan’s book, “America is in the Heart” as this was assigned in her Filipino American Experience course when she was an undergraduate. Her professor, Royal Morales would mention her hometown, particularly the areas that is now the “Little Manila”, she realized that her family stories were historical and this was when she began to understand the context of what it meant to be a third generation Pinay from Stockton. This awakening led to dedicating her education and life to making sure that the whole world knew the right facts about the history of Filipino Americans, and how Stockton was one of the key places where our Manongs and Manangs settled, the Asparagus fieldworkers, and their key roles such as Veterans that served the U.S. Military.


Maybe, it’s your turn to see firsthand how Stockton, California is like, after all you’ve studied and now teach Filipino Americans’ culture, history and language.

Niece of Fred and Dorothy Cordova, Dawn is a graduate of Edison High School, soon thereafter briefly attended community college before transferring to UCLA. There, she majored in Asian American Studies where she wrote her thesis on Manangs, the women who arrived in Stockton before World War II. As she completed her thesis, she then went to Stanford University and wrote her dissertation that examined the whole community of Stockton for the most of the 20th century.

Fourteen years later, fast forward to August 11, 2018. As I was going through Instagram, I saw a GoFundMe page with the heading of Dawn Bohulano Mabalon Memorial Fund that had this post and read:

Dear Family and Friends,

It is with great sadness that the family of Dawn Bohulano Mabalon announce her sudden death on August 10, 2018 in Kauai, Hawaii while on vacation with her family. This is great loss for all of us, as she gave the world to her family, friends, and our community. Dawn was a respected historian, author, community leader, and activist who leaves us with an important and far-reaching legacy. We hope you can join us as we plan celebrations of her life in Stockton, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  

We are raising funds to help bring Dawn back home and also to pay for the funeral and memorial costs.

Presently, the campaign is at $65,030 and surpassed the goal of $60K.

I had to re-read the post, and I scanned through all my social media where I saw her best friend, Dillon Delvo, co-founder of Little Manila Foundation (LMF) at Barrio Fiesta speaking about Dawn, and the conversation that they both had, that started LMF, now known as Little Manila Rising (LMR).

Her friend, veteran journalist Emil Guillermo’s wrote on his post on Facebook that Dawn was on vacation in Kauai with her family when tragedy hit. She was snorkeling and had experienced difficulty breathing. It was determined that she died of an Asthma attack. She was 46 years old.

I still can’t believe that Dawn has left our world. I still am in shock as I write about her. I found myself all weekend speaking through thin air, thinking she’d hear me. My friendship with Dawn was professional and she knew that I always supported her work and celebrated with the community all the events Little Manila Rising sponsored. I was always excited to see her, and would always go up to her and greet her with a hug.

 FANHS Conference in 2014 with the Little Manila board (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

FANHS Conference in 2014 with the Little Manila board (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

I last saw Dawn at the recent Little Manila Rising Community Showcase at SJ Delta College. She was on stage with Lange Luntao, and I was seated towards the front of the stage. As she was speaking on the mic, she saw me and raised her brow and nodded. I inconspicuously waved at her and smiled. Among Filipinos, this gesture says so much, “Kamusta?” (hello); “Buti, na an dito ka!” (Good to see you are here attending the showcase); or simply “Hoy!” (Hey!).

There is a barrage of social media posts, emails, and articles that I’ve seen since her passing.

Many of us are trying to make out what happened. How it happened? I asked myself, “How can a beautiful soul like Dawn be taken so quickly from this earth”? I continued to rationalize and said, “It’s not fair!” she still has projects to do – In fact, she had just completed the children’s book on the history of Larry Itliong with her childhood friend, Gayle Romasanta, publisher of Bridge Delta Publishing.

Gayle wrote on Facebook:

We were almost done with Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong on Friday. I was mailing the final proof to the printers. Was everyone all good with it? I texted Andre and Dawn. Dawn just woke up. Everything was a go. She wanted to make sure we made the edits to the resources section. We did. So with that, after two years of intense work, meetings, 25+ rewrites, a lot of laughter, tsis mis, and aha moments with Dre and Dawn, we were done. I mailed the proof. A few hours later we received the devastating news. Today, we made one last change. A difficult and inconceivable one. We love you Dawn. Forever and ever. I’m honored that we created together. You were my stand up comedy partner. And now we were working on children’s history books together. Life is funny like that. And you were always quick to point that out.” #stockton #dawnmabalonisintheheart #dawninspiredme #209

The change that Gayle spoke of in her post was that of the credits on the back cover of the final proof of the children’s book.

It reads:

In Loving Memory of Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, PhD
(1972-2018)

DAWN MABALON IS IN THE HEART

Bridgedelta+link+picture.jpg

In search for my thoughts on Dawn’s sudden passing and the legacy she’s left behind, I reached out to people that both Dawn and I knew, as well as, admired for the work that they did for our community.

Here are a few quotes of this compilation that I was able to gather.

In sadness I told myself that Dawn has bequeathed us with her beautiful soul, and I don't mean to be sacriligious about it. She's shone and contributed all of herself on issues of cultural continuity - historic and heritage preservation, Filipino foodways, race, justice and ethnic studies, even her Grandma's authentic kakanins, her one-person movement in what is now a short lifetime..However it's a life well-lived and she certainly taught us how to mine our own personal, familial and communal histories.”

Dawn represented many struggles and provided narratives backed by historical research. On that account, she is shared by so many. The loss is felt not just by family and friends but all allies in social justice and historic preservation.”

Elena Mangahas, Little Manila Rising Board of Directors
(Elena was Chairperson of Little Manila Foundation when it emerged as an historic preservation group in Stockton and when Dawn was fresh out of her doctorate in history from Stanford University.)

 Dawn and Elena Mangahas at the Grauman Theater in Hollywood after Little Manila Foundation received the California Preservation Award in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

Dawn and Elena Mangahas at the Grauman Theater in Hollywood after Little Manila Foundation received the California Preservation Award in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Elena Mangahas)

Our loss is truly beyond measure. Dawn has always been a spiritual force whose reach goes far beyond her publications and expansive service to community, academe, and the broader society. She embraced the risks of taking principled positions on issues that are truly vital to all humankind while standing on the firmament of truth, honesty, and love. May the power of her intellect and profoundly philosophical and lovably gross comedic humor be with us forever more.”

Dan Gonzales, J.D. Professor, College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University

 Professor Dan Gonzales, Dawn Mabalon and Mitch Yangzon during the launch of "Filipinos in San Francisco" (Photo by Raymond Virata)

Professor Dan Gonzales, Dawn Mabalon and Mitch Yangzon during the launch of "Filipinos in San Francisco" (Photo by Raymond Virata)

History and people contributions are meaningless unless they are shared and discussed. I can say Dawn did both in a professional and simple manner we all could appreciate. We were 25 years difference in age but there was never a time I didn't learn something new and exciting from Dawn I had the honor to work with her as a FANHS Trustee and Museum Committee Member. I have seen Dawns positive work, done, in the Stockton community over the years and it has inspired me to continue supporting the "Filipino American Learning Experience"!!  She has left a legacy that must be carried on by those who were inspired by her. A friend who I will miss but will never forget.”

Mel Lagasca, FANHS Board of Trustees

Dawn’s influence and impact spans across many areas: academia, historical preservation, community activism, grassroots youth organizing, and social justice among many others. Her passing has reinforced the importance of documenting and sharing the valuable contributions that Filipina/os have made to the societal fabric of the U.S.. She was an inspiration to many of us, and we will continue the work she began in her memory”

Ron P. Muriera, Community Historian & Arts and Cultural Advocate

Dawn Mabalon was a tenacious voice for the Filipino American Community”

Joel Juanitas, Little Manila Rising, BAHALA NA

Dawn’s passing is a big loss to the Filipino American community particularly to the young college students. She will be missed.”

Rebecca Delgado-Rottman, Board Chair of West Bay Pilipino Multi Purpose Center

Dawn Mabalon represented the spearhead of Fil-Am consciousness and research of my generation. She was a fellow colleague in this Filipino Renaissance. Her absence will be felt for decades to come”

Rex Navarrette, standup comedian

It’s Day 7 without your physical presence Dawn, but I know that you see us all. May your spirit and love for Filipina/o community live in each of us. Maraming Salamat dearest Dawn for your vision and work. You will be missed!

Balitang America's Rommel Conclara reports on the sudden passing of beloved community advocate Dr. Dawn Buholano Mabalon, who fought for the preservation of Filipino American history and rallied for ethnic studies.

Link to Little Manila Foundation: http://www.littlemanila.org


 Mariel Toni Jimenez

Mariel Toni Jimenez

Mariel Toni Jimenez, J.D., LL.M. is Vice Chairperson for the City of Stockton Arts Commission. A former TV broadcast journalist with KMTP-TV32 “Filipino-American Report” based in San Francisco, Hawaii and Guam. She is a retired professor with the University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and Sciences and School of Law.


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