Thursday, December 26, 2002

Little Manila Foundation members Dawn Mabalon, at left, and Rico Reyes stood Monday outside a vacant building that was once a Filipino dance hall in downtown Stockton, Calif.

Filipino Americans work
to preserve heritage

By Deborah Kong
Associated Press

STOCKTON, Calif. >> Confronted with signs that warned, "No Dogs and No Filipinos Allowed," immigrants carved out a downtown section of this Northern California city that eventually became known as Little Manila.

By the 1930s, Stockton was home to the largest Filipino population outside the Philippines. But a cross-town freeway cut through the neighborhood in the early 1970s, and the once-vibrant enclave is now just a shadow of what it was.

The Little Manila Foundation has been fighting to save the district's remaining buildings from demolition, hoping to preserve them as a reminder of their role in Filipino-American and city history.

Up and down the West Coast, Filipino Americans are waging similar efforts to reclaim pieces of their history.

"Filipinos are the second-largest Asian-American community, but so little is known nationally about our history. Our historic districts have been chipped away," said Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, 30, chairwoman of the foundation.

Now there's "a movement to reclaim history that's been physically destroyed and largely ignored and forgotten," she said. "This generation is poised to reclaim it."

In Los Angeles, activists hope to build a Filipino cultural center and attract more businesses to an area west of downtown that was recently designated Historic Filipinotown by the city council.

In San Francisco, a new Manilatown center that will house photos of the old 10-block Filipino community, plus a performing arts and gallery space, is scheduled to be built by late 2004 or early 2005.

In June the Hawaii Filipino community opened the $14.2 million Filipino Community Center in Waipahu, billed as the largest such center of its kind outside the Philippines.

The Filipino American National Historical Society also has been advocating for recognition of Filipino Americans' long history in the United States. In a museum outside New Orleans, a plaque now recognizes the first Filipino settlement in 1763. And on a beach in Morro Bay, Calif., another plaque marks the first documented presence of Filipinos in the continental United States in 1587.

"What if there's nothing about you?" said Dorothy Laigo Cordova, 70, the society's founder. "That means you are nothing."

With the society's oral histories, letters, photographs, memorabilia and other documents, she said, "we finally have something about us."

One by one, Filipino-American enclaves have mostly disappeared. Like Stockton's Little Manila, many have been almost erased by redevelopment.

Advocates fear the story of Filipinos in the United States may fade away along with them. Many of the areas formed in the 1920s and 1930s as immigrants came to the United States in search of opportunity.

Denied other jobs, many Filipinos worked in agriculture, fishing and canning and as domestics, dishwashers and janitors. Discrimination forced them to live in enclaves which grew into bustling clusters of barbershops, restaurants, pool halls, clothing stores and other businesses.

In Stockton the city council voted to designate a four-block area the Little Manila Historic Site, at the urging of the historical society's local chapter. Today, cars and trucks rumble past a McDonald's and gas station that have replaced the old neighborhood.

The foundation recently received a $4,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help save the Emerald Restaurant, plus two boarded-up buildings that were once the Rizal Social Club and a residential hotel that was home to hundreds of Filipinos.

The foundation and historical society hope to build a national Filipino-American museum on that block.

In Los Angeles, Susan Espiritu Maquindang, executive director of the Filipino American Service Group Inc., hopes more Filipinos will move into the Filipinotown area and open businesses.

It was the first place her aunt took her when she arrived in the United States in 1973, Maquindang remembers. "They were so proud to show me," she said.

San Francisco's Manilatown was gradually displaced by high-rises as the financial district expanded. Its last building, the International Hotel, was demolished 25 years ago after police evicted the mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese tenants.

The new Manilatown center will be built on the hotel site.

"This is all a way of fighting back to regain our past," said Emil De Guzman, president of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. "We have to have reference points for those generations, young as well as unborn, so that they have a way of understanding proudly their heritage in this country."

Filipino Community Center
Filipino American National Historical Society
Little Manila Foundation

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