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Saving a Harsh Picture of the Past

Times Staff Writer

Leatrice Bantillo-Perez knows they’re not much to look at -- these three dilapidated storefronts slouching in the shadow of a noisy downtown freeway in this heat-raked Central Valley community. The boarded-up hotel, abandoned dance hall and former union lodge are all that remain of a once-vibrant Philippine American neighborhood known as Little Manila.

But Bantillo-Perez has a message for development-hungry city officials: Leave those buildings alone.

The 74-year-old activist and other Filipinos here are battling a plan to demolish the structures and build an Asian-themed mini-mall and parking lot. They want to save a neighborhood that was once home to the largest population of Filipinos outside the Philippines, one that for years was considered the center of Philippine American culture nationwide.

Already devastated by urban renewal, what remains of Little Manila should be preserved as recognition of the migrant workers who endured decades of racism as they toiled in the growing fields of the San Joaquin Valley, they say.

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Stockton officials reply that developers are waiting eagerly, cash in hand, to rejuvenate a four-block area long left for dead. It’s home to auto parts stores, vacant lots and fences topped with concertina wire. They say the activists have no money to finance their dream of turning the buildings into a museum and cultural center with affordable housing.

But now activists have an ally. On Thursday, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation included Little Manila on its 2003 list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

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Historic Sites

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The neighborhood joined other threatened sites such as the old Trans World Airlines Terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge in Atchison, Kan., and the U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

About 1.5 million Filipinos live in the United States today, about 750,000 of them in California, according to census figures. In San Joaquin County, 17,000 remain, scattered across the rural landscape.

The Stockton effort is among several in California for Philippine Americans aiming to reclaim a sense of community. Los Angeles activists hope to build a Filipino cultural center in an area west of downtown that was recently designated Historic Filipinotown. And in San Francisco, a Manilatown center and museum will be built on the site of the old International Hotel, from which elderly Filipinos were ousted in the 1970s to pave the way for a proposed parking lot.

For Bantillo-Perez, the three Stockton buildings evoke both proud and painful memories. She stands outside the old dance hall with its peeling paint and describes how sunburned Philippine farm workers would flock there at night in their zoot suits, crowding three deep onto the sidewalks because it was considered a crime for them to wander outside Little Manila.

She recalls the mistreatment at the hands of townspeople; the shop signs reading, “No Dogs and No Filipinos Allowed”; how workers who entered white businesses were beaten and carried away in an ominous-looking old “paddy wagon” known as the Black Maria. Some of the insults still sting: “Filipinos were known as ‘brown monkeys,’ ” she said.

Good or bad, activists say, Little Manila’s history should be preserved for a new generation, many members of which have no idea of the sacrifices made by their ancestors. Local schools and universities all but ignore local the history of Filipinos. Apart from their recollections and fading photographs, all they have left of the past is Little Manila.

“Filipinos are this city’s invisible residents, but we had our neighborhood, the place where we thrived, where we made our friends and left our cultural mark,” Bantillo-Perez said. “Once it goes, I fear that a large part of all of us will go with it.”

Immigration of Filipinos to the Central Valley began around 1900. Forty years later, more than 40,000 newcomers, most of them male, worked the migrant farm circuit. They provided back-breaking labor that helped drive the local economy -- harvesting fruit, asparagus, peas, lettuce and tomatoes -- and were among the earliest union organizers in the fields.

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Life in Stockton was anything but easy. Most of the men lived in residential hotels, because laws prohibited immigrants from owning land.

Until the 1960s, officials maintained a “Mason-Dixon Line” along Main Street, forbidding Filipinos to venture north into white areas. As a result, El Dorado Street in Little Manila became so crowded that it become known as the “Filipino Freeway.”

Residents were constantly on the lookout for whites who used baseball bats to assault male Filipinos who dared to date whites, activists say.

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Segregated Era

Filipinos were banned from the town’s sole bowling alley and were shunted to side rows in the Fox Theater. In the 1930s, there were riots and the bombing of a Filipino building by agitators who believed that the immigrants took jobs away from white residents.

“We accepted it; we were told we had to,” Bantillo-Perez said. “We were living in another country, where white people had supremacy. Our elders always told us: ‘Know your place.’ ”

As a response to the hostility, Little Manila developed its own social world. Until the 1970s, dozens of businesses thrived there, including the Aklan Hotel, P.D. Lazaro Tailoring, the Three Star Pool Hall and the Lafayette Lunch Counter.

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Workers flocked to the AFL-CIO labor hall to plan the 1939 uprising against asparagus growers. And they frequented the taxi-dance hall next door, where they would shell out cash to dance with white girls in short dresses. Many lived in the adjacent Mariposa Hotel.

If Little Manila was built as a byproduct of racism, it was virtually destroyed in the 1960s by redevelopment, activists say. To make way for a cross-town freeway in 1972, many elderly Filipinos, or pinoys, were displaced from aging hotels that were soon demolished.

“People were told to leave their homes,” said Dawn Mabalon, chairwoman of the Little Manila Foundation. Her doctoral dissertation at Stanford University will include the history of the Stockton neighborhood. “It was easy to build the freeway through the ethnic part of town where residents had no political power.”

In 2000, activists persuaded the city to erect signs recognizing Little Manila as a historic site -- a move Mabalon called mere lip service: “One politician told me that without money to save this neighborhood, all we had was a dream.”

Councilman Gary S. Giovanetti, whose district encompasses Little Manila, says even national recognition can’t save the neighborhood. “Do they have some severe hurdles to climb?” he said of activists. “Yeah, they do.”

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‘Not Beautiful’

He said there are other ways to recognize the achievements of local Philippine Americans. “Just not these three buildings and not on this spot.”

Leslie Crow, chairwoman of the city’s cultural heritage board, agreed that the buildings seemed destined for demolition. “It’s easy to sell the idea of saving a pretty building,” she said. “But when it’s not beautiful or awe-inspiring and has few redeeming qualities -- other than significance to one part of the community -- it’s a much tougher sell.”

Added Stockton Vice Mayor Gloria Nomura, herself a Philippine American: “Faced with well-funded developers on one side and a grass-roots group with big dreams to preserve the integrity of the area, but with no money, which way do you think most cities would go?”

That attitude angers Mabalon, who says the group has its own investors. “It’s an outdated urban development theory to think we have to bulldoze these downtown areas to build anew,” she said.

On a tour of Little Manila, she visited a hotel and card club, relocated here during a previous redevelopment.

As men played cards nearby, Mabalon sighed. “This will eventually have to go too,” she predicted. “Is this what they call progress?”

Dillon Delvo, another activist, says that little of the Philippine American experience is taught in Stockton schools.

“For young Filipino children not to know this history is like black kids in Birmingham, Ala., not knowing who Martin Luther King is,” he said. “Keeping Little Manila will help avoid that.”


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