STOCKTON, Calif. – When Dillon Delvo’s father arrived in Stockton 70 years ago he was among a growing number of Filipinos settling in what was then a largely agricultural town. With their numbers rising, these early migrants soon formed the thriving community known as Little Manila.
Today, though, most younger people are fleeing the foreclosure-blighted city, and Stockton has become the largest municipality in the United States to declare bankruptcy. Yet, Devlo is among a small and determined group refusing to give up on their hometown.
Several dilapidated buildings are now all that remain of Stockton’s Little Manila, a sign of the hard times that have befallen the city of about 290,000, some 85 miles east of San Francisco. Officially declaring itself the “All American City,” a town regarded for its striking diversity, Stockton has earned the more dubious unofficial distinction of California’s “Foreclosure Capital.”
But for Delvo, 39, the city’s struggles against rampant foreclosures, sky-high unemployment hovering at or above 20 percent, and the surging number of homicides – 33 as of June – aren’t reasons to flee. Instead, they are what keep this Stockton native in his home community.
Delvo returned to Stockton after graduating in 2003 from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in cinema and a master’s in Asian American Studies.
“Why go elsewhere,” Delvo said. “I think that when you go and get an education, you [come back and] serve the community that is most in need.”
From Boom to Bust
Stockton’s Filipino population was on the rise from 2000-2009. Jumping by 29 percent, the increase reflected the optimism then fueling what would prove to be a short-lived renaissance.
In the mid-2000s city leaders opted to overhaul the town’s marina and rebuild city hall, among a number of costly projects funded through bonds and loans totaling $190 million. Those obligations came on top of pensions and life-long health care payments promised to retired city workers a decade earlier.
Then the market crashed in 2008, straddling the city with close to $750 million in long-term debt and a foreclosure rate nearly triple the state average, with one home foreclosed on filing for every 195 households.
Stockton became the largest city in the Golden State to declare bankruptcy in late June.
“City Council members can build strip malls and housing developments,” said Delvo, reflecting on the city’s fortunes, “but they don’t build the people.” For that, he added, you have to return to the community.
Delvo was recently named principal of the newly opened Transformational Education Academy (TEAM). The downtown charter school, the first focused on social justice themes, includes children in grades K-5.
He also serves as a youth minister at nearby St. George’s Church, where in exchange for letters of recommendation, Delvo solicits a promise from young, college-bound members. “Go to the institutions that (provide) the tools to change the community,” he tells them. “Then come back to where your families are.”
Stockton’s Filipino Roots
Delvo’s father left the Philippines for Stockton in 1946 to work as a migrant field worker. Still an American colony then, the country provided a rich source of cheap labor to replace Chinese, Korean and Japanese workers. Those groups were denied entry to the U.S. thanks to discriminatory policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924.
Men as young as 18 left behind family and friends in search of opportunities on the farms and fields surrounding Stockton. At the same time they were laying the foundations of what would become a center of Filipino culture in the U.S.
With the Great Depression came a rise in hostility directed at these relative newcomers. From the 1930s through to the 1950s, signs appeared that read, “No Dogs or Filipinos Allowed.” Despite the distinguished duty of Filipinos during World War II, those in Stockton found themselves prohibited from crossing the city’s main street, forcing them to create their own little community on one side of the city. Thus Little Manila was born.
Most of that history has since been lost. What remains of Little Manila today is overshadowed by the McDonald’s, gas station and freeway overpass now dominating the landscape.
Drug dealers have replaced the farm workers that once called this place home.
In 2000, Delvo put his dreams of being a filmmaker on hold and co-founded the Little Manila Foundation. Along with fellow Stockton-native Dawn Mabalon, who teaches history at San Francisco State, the pair decided to channel their efforts toward preserving what was left of the community’s Filipino heritage.
“I thought it was sad to learn about my hometown and my family by having to come to S.F. State and not while I was still in Stockton,” said Delvo. “It was embarrassing.”
In addition to successfully preserving three historic buildings in what used to be Little Manila, co-founders Delvo and Mabalon also started Stockton’s first Filipino-American after school program at Edison High School in 2008. Students there are exposed – many for the first time – to aspects of Filipino history, including pre-colonial times and the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century.
“A lot of this stuff is [limited to] just a paragraph in most high school textbooks,” Delvo explains. “The kids keep coming because they’re hungry to learn more about themselves and the fact that the opportunities they have today didn’t come about by chance but because of sacrifice.”
Apart from the classes, Delvo and Mabalon have organized spoken-word workshops, field trips to California colleges and Filipino cultural shows.
“I wanted to come back to Stockton because it’s my home,” said 23-year-old Brian Batugo, who graduated recently from the University of California, Berkeley, with a triple major in theater, dance-and-performance studies, as well as ethnic studies.
Batugo is now a part-time teacher in the Little Manila Foundation’s after school program and will begin teaching kindergarten at TEAM Charter School this fall. “Since I can’t invest my own money to fix the woes of my community,” he added, “I’d rather invest my time and energy to empower youth.”
Aldrich Limpin Sabac, 25, also recently returned to Stockton after turning down a job offer to teach in South Central Los Angeles. Sabac graduated with a master’s degree in Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“These last seven years, Southside Stockton was always in my mind,” said Sabac. “I left my home with a clear purpose, and now I am back to engage in this purpose.”
Sabac, who also plans to start teaching at TEAM Charter this fall, credits Dillon for his initial decision to go to college. “He was the first to introduce me to concepts of social justice and ethnic studies,” he said.
Speaking to the city’s recent spate of misfortunes, Stockton native Leanne Dauz, 20, said it hurts “when people automatically assume we’re ghetto.”
Pointing to Delvo, she credited his efforts for inspiring people like her to look to Stockton as a “place to come back to.”
For Delvo, such examples provide a reason for hope when circumstances offer anything but hope. “We’re a community in crisis and no one else will come and save us,” he stated. “We have to save ourselves.”