Inside the Little Manila Center on Stockton’s East Main Street, 26 trunks tell 26 stories.
OK, 25, because one of the trunks was so badly damaged by water, its contents couldn’t be salvaged, leaving one life story that will remain largely untold.
From the one they opened for the first time just last week, the folks there know that a Filipino immigrant named Eucebio Maglente, who died in the 1930s, liked the cream-colored suits and saddle oxford shoes so popular in the 1930s and ’40s. They know he frequently exchanged letters with family members back in the Philippines. From documents, they know that he toiled in the pineapple fields of Hawaii before coming to the mainland, taking home $4.90 for (presumably) a week’s work in 1922.
And they know another Filipino, Jacinto J. Ates – who died in Stockton in 1975 – purchased a book containing the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in 1946, typical of an immigrant who studied to become a U.S. citizen.
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Indeed, these trunks are significant because they offer a window into a group of immigrants whose culture and historical contributions to the nation have gone largely unrecognized in the Valley even though Stockton once housed the largest Filipino population in the world outside of the Philippines. They began coming to the United States after the Philippines became a U.S. protectorate in 1899. Over the next three decades, they came here to work in the fields, vineyards and orchards throughout the Valley, including Stanislaus County. Many, most of them young men, left their families behind and came here alone, never to return.
They built lives here in the fields, as barbers, as professional boxers, their worlds converging in fraternal organizations that sprang up throughout the city, beginning with the Daguhoy Lodge in south Stockton and followed by other lodges as well. They met there to socialize, enjoy Christmas parties and other lodge events. They assembled a quality band that marched in parades.
“The Filipino fraternal societies were based on the Masonic lodge traditions,” said Dillon Delvo, executive director of the Little Manila Foundation in Stockton. “They were like surrogate families. Dues went toward funerals. The people felt it was the saddest thing, being away from their families, young men dying in their 20s, in some cases, being buried in a cardboard box. The (Filipino) community thought that was terrible.”
They also felt it was terrible that, because of the Alien Land Act of 1913, they could not own land as individuals. Throughout the state, in fact, whites went to great lengths to prevent Asian immigrants from owning property. The community of Delhi, in fact, was created as a Soviet-like state farm to help veterans after World War I. But the underlying reason was to prevent Japanese immigrants from taking over some 8,000 acres of prime farmland.
The immigrants found loopholes: Some leased property and ran their own farms. Others, such as the Filipinos, used their organizations to acquire property. Thus, the fraternal lodges not only were places where they conducted their social events, they also became dormitories where these single men lived and received their mail. They paid rent that helped the lodge officials pay the bills.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t eliminate the last of the alien land ownership prohibitions until 1952.
Like the other immigrant groups, Filipinos created their own societies here because they weren’t welcomed by white society. In fact, Filipinos for decades were strongly discouraged from venturing too far north beyond Main Street in the city. The irony? The Little Manila Center, which opened in 2015, is situated on East Main downtown. The north side of East Main.
The Filipinos were unafraid to demand better working conditions in the fields, and organized the Delano grape strike in 1965. When growers threatened to replace them with Mexican workers, the Filipino workers, led by organizer Larry Itliong, joined forces with labor leader Cesar Chavez to form the United Farmer Workers union. Yet, today most people associate the UFW as being a Latino-only organization.
The Little Manila organization formed in 2000 to begin protecting the Filipino heritage in Stockton because the city began targeting the dilapidated area for demolition and redevelopment instead of historical preservation. They sued the city and won, and succeeded in getting eight square blocks south of the freeway designated “The Little Manila Historic Area.” But the blight remains.
The Daguhoy’s last official tenant, martial arts studio owner Anthony Somera, found the trunks in a small room in the basement several years ago. He opened one and realized what it represented. So, he moved them elsewhere for safekeeping without opening the rest. Cancer claimed him two years ago. Meanwhile, local building officials demanded that the Daguhoy Lodge get a new roof to remain in use. The organization went into debt and lost the land to tax forfeiture, with a Modesto-based company, Capital Equity Management, buying the 121-year-old property for $64,000 at a county sale in 2015. It is for sale once again.
The trunks all are now at the Little Manila Center, where Delvo is hoping to secure grant money that would allow the nonprofit to bring in experts to handle, preserve and display the contents, those life stories in boxes. Delvo and others in the Little Manila Foundation opened another trunk – Maglente’s – last week.
He believes they will enable the foundation to better tell the story of the Filipino immigrants in America – their sacrifice, their hardship, the social rejection outside their own culture. They were a hardworking and feisty bunch, he discovered – while in college at San Francisco State, not from growing up in Stockton’s Filipino community.
“I went to college to learn about them,” Delvo said. “I had to come back to really appreciate it, that for the immigrants their only opportunity was working in fields. What a crime it would be if they were forgotten. No kid should have to leave Stockton to learn about Stockton. And if you don’t teach it, people will redefine it.”
His own father rarely spoke about the culture and encouraged his son to move forward rather than live in the past.
“I don’t speak Tagalog (the Filipino language),” Delvo said. “Younger Filipinos have no idea of their own role. They have no idea of who Larry Itliong is, no idea of the sacrifice. We need to tell an American story.”
One trunk, one person, one life story at a time.