Dawn Bohulano Mabalon’s “Little Manila Is in the Heart,” depicts the Filipina/o settlement in Stockton, Calif.’s Little Manila as a remarkable and unique event in Filipina/o American history. By covering a rich 50 years of Stockton’s Filipina/o community, Mabalon succeeds in showing that not all Filipino/a migrants were “roving bands of workers who…rarely settled in West Coast cities” (page 11).

With a sharp focus on a small space, Mabalon tells the story of Stockton as the story of Filipina/o America, showing how the town’s history depicts Ilocano, Tagalog and Cebuano immigrants who came together in the city to begin identifying as Filipino/a Americans. From the 1920s until the 1970s, Filipina/os thrived in Little Manila’s working-class four-to six-block area, which was comprised of rooming houses, pool halls, dance halls, grocery stores, barbershops, churches and union halls. Mabalon’s study reveals a space where sedentary Filipina/os started families, churches, unions and businesses, and where migratory Filipina/os came to relax, meet old friends, dance and gamble. Acting as a center of gravity for the emerging immigrant community, Stockton, over the decades, becomes the capitol of Filipina/o America.

Mabalon’s focus on one small town within a town demands attention to detail, which she provides employing different methods of historical research, from archival research to interviews with “old timers,” to documenting Mabalon’s own family history. After emigrating to Stockton in 1929, Mabalon’s grandfather became a community leader and was so well known in the town that, in 1987, he was dubbed “Mr. Little Manila.” Mabalon’s intimate knowledge of her family informs her research on the community and allows her to focus on cultural events like the women in Filipina/o dance halls who were paid to dance like taxi drivers, as well as the strong spirituality and family life in the community. However, some might find that her intimacy with the community leads her to idealize the memory of Little Manila in a way that blames the community’s “foreign elements” for its eventual loss. Of these foreign elements, Mabalon focuses on prostitution, the “logic of capitalism” and “new immigrants” who “threatened to tear apart the delicate fabric of the community,” according to the book.

Mabalon’s argument is strongest when she considers the “atmosphere of extreme racial repression” that plagued the city most aggressively during the Depression, when white Southerners moved to California and Filipinos became the target of racism once used to demean and sometimes murder African Americans in the South. Mabalon’s historical research also illuminates a transnational history of Little Manila by attending to the various homelands that Filipina/o immigrants hailed from. In this, she exposes the historically marginalized role of the Filipina, whose importance in Filipina/o American communities was paramount because there were so few of them. By focusing on the Filipina wives, daughters and workers, Mabalon constructs a tale of the Filipino/a immigrant that resists stereotypical representations of Filipino bachelors (Manongs) as prostitution-obsessed gamblers. Rather, these communities secured more power to future generations of Filipina Americans.

Mabalon’s text is not merely a history of a community, but a study of how that community has been remembered and forgotten, given the redevelopment and gentrification policies that demolished most of Little Manila’s buildings after the 1960s. For Mabalon, remembering Stockton becomes crucial, not only because it shows the formation of Filipino/a American identity, but because its physical decimation has nearly led to the loss of its historic memory, as she notes: “there are no monuments to Filipino/a American history in [contemporary] Stockton.” Mabalon’s history of Little Manila has become necessary given its eventual destruction at the hand of the Crosstown Freeway, which wiped out two blocks of Little Manila and led to larger gentrification processes. Such a story of urban redevelopment displacing Asian American (and other minority) communities is unfortunately a familiar one, and Mabalon remembers this history to show how Filipina/os settled in America, not only as farm hands, but as business owners, as spiritual devotees, as mothers and fathers and as people at play.

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