Little Manila at the Break of Dawn

So what’s the big deal? About this little city in the middle of California… called Stockton. To some it’s just a small town that you pass by on long road trips; others may recall familiar news headlines of dangerous happenings in the area, while a majority would probably say, “I’ve never heard of it.”

My name is Jaelyn Galasinao Sanidad, and I am a third-generation Filipina born and raised in the Southside of Stockton, California. Growing up as a Southside kid, your daily routine was probably going to school, going to the local elotero (food stand) and ice cream truck afterwards, then kicking it on the block with your friends—until the street lights turned on and that’s how you knew it was time to go home. On many levels, this was the only side to life that we knew. We never really knew what college exactly does for you or how to get there, what jobs would best fit us, but most of all, we never knew that the place that we called home, the place that was seen to be our biggest weakness, was actually our most compelling strength.

A childhood photo of my cousins and I swimming on a sunny, Stockton day.

A childhood photo of my cousins and I swimming on a sunny, Stockton day.

A photo I captured of south Stockton’s Skidrow, a strip of tents that belong to the homeless population.

A photo I captured of south Stockton’s Skidrow, a strip of tents that belong to the homeless population.

Little Manila Is in the Heart

The thing about south Stockton is that it was once home to some of the most vibrant communities of color, one being the Filipino community that was dubbed “Little Manila.” Little Manila was a four-block chunk of downtown Stockton that was once home to the largest population of Filipinos outside of the Philippines from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Thousands of Filipinos would flock at the intersection of Lafayette and El Dorado Streets, which in many ways became not only the crossroads of Little Manila, but also the crossroads of Filipino American history. As Dr. Dawn Mabalon states in her book Little Manila Is in the Heart, “The pull to Stockton soon became so strong for some Filipino/a immigrants that they came to the city after almost immediately landing in San Francisco, Seattle, or Los Angeles… Though most Filipinas/os now live in urban areas such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of Filipinas/o Americans can trace their roots back to Stockton’s Little Manila.”

A depiction of the area that was known as Little Manila in south Stockton.

A depiction of the area that was known as Little Manila in south Stockton.

What was once the most colorful blocks on the West Coast was gentrified into a freeway, a gas station, and a McDonald’s. Although most of the community’s buildings were demolished, two student activists who happened to be the children of manongs and early immigrants, Dillon Delvo and Dawn Mabalon, eventually organized the community to save the last three buildings of Little Manila. It’s ironic because it wasn’t until they  went off to college at UCLA and San Francisco State that they were finally able to learn about their own city’s history.

Dillon Delvo says in an interview, “I was one of the last generations… to remember that generation. To remember the manong and manang generation. I remember many manongs used to walk downtown, and were going to one of the last Filipino barber shops in Little Manila, where my dad would get a haircut… and he’d really be proud of bringing me to the barber shop where all his friends could see me. I think everyone else didn’t have a kid, so they kinda adopted me as their own… [And at San Francisco State], it was a difficult time for me. Because at the same time they’d talk about Filipino American history, often times they’d talk about Stockton. Yet I was from Stockton, and I knew none of this.” By selling shirts in the trunks of their cars, and knocking on doors in the community, Dawn and Dillon were able to save the last block of Little Manila; and then co-founded Little Manila Rising.

A photo I captured of Little Manila in 2019. As you can see, it has become nothing more than a McDonald’s, a gas station, and next to a freeway.

A photo I captured of Little Manila in 2019. As you can see, it has become nothing more than a McDonald’s, a gas station, and next to a freeway.

Whose House?

Just because Little Manila was demolished, it doesn’t mean that its spirit is not felt in town. In fact, we can see this in many traditions here in the Southside. For generations, many Filipinos have had a heavy presence in local schools, like Marshall Middle School and Edison High School, where the majority of the manongs and manangs actually went; where Dawn and Dillon went in the ‘90s; and where my childhood friends and I went too. Edison is one of the oldest high schools in Stockton and the school itself has served as a historical site for Southside culture. Dillon Delvo says, “I know at Edison, there’s a certain type of resilience that I think bonded our school together. ‘Cause we knew we didn’t have the best of things physically, but we did have a chip on our shoulder and it felt that regardless of where we were from, you still couldn’t mess with us. There’s a certain secret sauce about Edison and south Stockton. There’s a certain spirit and I really can’t put a finger to it… but, it’s always something that’s fun, prideful, and underlying it all, resilience, that we came from Southside, and that the rest of the world didn’t think much of us.”

An old photo of the late Dawn Mabalon at Edison High School, where she was in the Class of 1990. I stole this from her Instagram.

An old photo of the late Dawn Mabalon at Edison High School, where she was in the Class of 1990. I stole this from her Instagram.

Every year, LMASP seniors have a photoshoot in front of the last three buildings that symbolize the resilience, continuation, and preservation of Little Manila. This is my senior class from Edison High School, and we were the Class of 2018. Photo by Aldrich Sabac.

Every year, LMASP seniors have a photoshoot in front of the last three buildings that symbolize the resilience, continuation, and preservation of Little Manila. This is my senior class from Edison High School, and we were the Class of 2018. Photo by Aldrich Sabac.

Whether it was your parents, auntie or uncle, brother or sister, or cousin, almost everyone at Edison has generational ties to the school. It was because of Edison High that I was able to join the Little Manila After School Program (LMASP) and the Little Manila Dance Collective. For many of my friends and I, our years consisted of kickin’ it in C20, walking to the taco truck, practices at Harrell Park, and going to the Little Manila After School Program on Tuesdays. One of the most exciting events that we looked forward to each year was Little Manila’s annual showcase.

It’s Showcase Szn

Little Manila’s annual showcase gives Stockton youth the opportunity to express themselves in a melting pot of spoken word, rap battles, martial arts, Philippine folk dance, and music. I have participated in showcase for two years now as a cultural dancer, an actress, and a poet. This year will be the first showcase since the late Dr. Dawn Mabalon, our co-founder, passed on. With gratitude, and in honoring her life and legacy, we decided to name this year’s showcase,“Dawn.”

Co-founder Dillon Delvo elaborates, “And obviously we wanna dedicate it to Dawn Mabalon… And to tell you the truth we’ll always mourn her, but I’m so tired of it. I think what she’d want us to do is move forward. It’s called ‘Dawn’ but it’s not so much about her… it’s about what she was about. It’s also a play on words, because it’s kinda like the dawn of a new day. Dawn is about our resilience, how we’re gonna take things to a whole other level, and to truly honor Dawn. Not just remember her, but pass on the baton, and take it to new heights as we know she’s gonna look down on us with hopefully a smile on her face. That’s what this showcase is about.”       

Little Manila Dance Collective, Kulintang Academy, and Little Manila Rondalla are the cultural showcase established by Brian Batugo: “I wanted to start music and dance programs in Southside Stockton because I grew up exposed to that when I was younger, and I wanted to see that space be provided to another generation of Filipino Americans.”

Brian Batugo graduated from Edison and went off to UC Berkeley, where he received much of his knowledge of the cultural arts. “A lot of my work here in Stockton has been built on the shoulders of giants like Parangal Dance Company of San Francisco, the American Center for Philippine Arts, and the important work of collegiate Filipino Americans in the genre of Pilipino Cultural Night… [We have also] introduced the community to former Artistic Director of Luzviminda Dance Company Voltaire Gungab, who had residency in Stockton in the 1970s.”

What is special about Brian Batugo is that he makes sure what he teaches is culturally accurate. He networks with teachers who have danced for decades, and he even goes to the Philippines often for study and pasalubong of dance attire. “The Little Manila Dance Collective and the growth that it has experienced these past seven years is a testament to the need for art and the way that art can transform, strengthen, and engage many different individuals in a community,” Brian concludes.

A photo of Little Manila Dance Collective after a beautiful performance at the University of the Pacific.

A photo of Little Manila Dance Collective after a beautiful performance at the University of the Pacific.

Bahala Na! Martial Arts showcases militant Filipino survival tactics. It can mimic scenarios ranging from working in Stockton fields with asparagus cutting tools, fighting wars against colonizers with bolo knives, or even just for fun. I really love the Bahala Na! uncles at Little Manila because they always greet me sweetly and treat me like a princess; but then they catch me off guard during their practices when they pull Philippine knives out of their pockets. I feel this represents the way our people care for their families and kasamas, but are always ready for war.

Bahala Na!  of Little Manila posing for a picture, with the squad rolling deep.

Bahala Na! of Little Manila posing for a picture, with the squad rolling deep.

LMASP and “Us” History high school students create skits that tackle issues like gender norms, mental health, and colonial mentality. A sophomore from Edison High named Jasarry Ocapan describes the annual showcase: “It makes me feel empowered, excited, and eager to learn more about my culture and history. This is my first year of doing showcase and this has been the best prepping, especially for Manang Dawn. But this showcase will not only represent Dawn, but will let us show that we will continue her legacy even without her being physically here.”

LMASP and “Us” History students get ready for the 2018 showcase titled “Rising.” They pose with a fierce look on their faces with fists in the air that refuse to back down. Photo by Doug Villalos.

LMASP and “Us” History students get ready for the 2018 showcase titled “Rising.” They pose with a fierce look on their faces with fists in the air that refuse to back down. Photo by Doug Villalos.

The passing of Dr. Dawn Mabalon was tragic, but let’s make it clear that Dawn always had a whole army behind her. What is special about this show is that although the world knows her as the Dr. Dawn Mabalon, the historian, the professor, the academic, we know her as the Southside homegirl. No matter how many awards she had received (which were a lot), as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Pinays in The World,” and as the first Pinay to receive a PhD at Stanford University, she always made it clear that she was from Southside Stockton.

To honor her life and legacy, our community invites you to watch our youth keep her vision alive. The annual showcase will take place on June 22, 2019 at the Atherton Auditorium of San Joaquin Delta College. It starts at 4 p.m.; the event is FREE, and you just need to RSVP! Stockton was the meeting place for Filipinos, the community mailbox, and the epitome of “Did you eat yet?” spirit in Philippine culture. Let it be known that we are still here, and yes, we keep the welcoming nature of Little Manila alive in south Stockton. We hope all can come down to Stockton, the way the manongs used to, and feel right at home. Like Dawn Mabalon once said, “For all of you who came from near and far, from the Bay Area and LA… from as far as San Francisco and as close as Charter Way, all of you. Welcome home, to Little Manila.”

And… We Rise

We’ve always been more than sirens echoing through the streets, car alarms going off at midnight, and the looks of disgust we receive when we say: “I’m from Stockton.” We’re entering this new age where we reclaim what it means to be from south Stockton, and it means knowing every shortcut, tradition, and hidden gem in the city. It’s the Isang Bagsak clap at the end of community showcase, it’s the E-House chant that Coach Baker does at the end of every graduation, it’s all the history that was made in Toal Hall. It’s the “under the bridge” market on Saturday mornings, taco trucks, fifth-generation and immigrant. It’s the feeling of everyone in town being a distant cousin, big brother, or little sister. It’s knowing that your ancestors and loved ones are living through you.

I’ve always known that I come from a place where everyone is exhausted from standing for long hours trying to make ends meet, but I’m looking at it differently now. Now, all I see are people on their feet just waiting for someone to speak. Without a doubt, just know it will be some southside rose that grew out this concrete.

It’s like my childhood was put into a proper context and I was handed the lens to look at myself and my southside story and finally see beauty. I used to be so ashamed but I’m becoming someone who holds southside Stockton so close to their heart, and I just wish all the OGs could see me now. Every struggle that has been felt in the past generations will be nothing compared to the healing happening now. Despite all the odds, we’re truly at the break of dawn here in Stockton: when it’s time for light to appear in the sky after a long, dark night. Despite it all, we rise.

Stockton always does.

A photo of me posing in front of a mural in south Stockton, somewhere along El Dorado St. Photo credits to Vince Albano, when he captured my senior portraits.

A photo of me posing in front of a mural in south Stockton, somewhere along El Dorado St. Photo credits to Vince Albano, when he captured my senior portraits.


Jaelyn Sanidad

Jaelyn Sanidad

My name is Jaelyn Sanidad and I am a Filipina born and raised in south Stockton. I am a first-year at San Joaquin Delta College with a major in Ethnic Studies, where I one day aspire to become an educator.