Dr. Dawn Mabalon was “The Most De-colonized” Filipina/o
by Emil GUILLERMO
The hurricane has been downgraded and Hawaii seems safe for now. And from California, I’m thinking about all my dear readers.
But there’s a spirit in the wind and rain in Kauai that I’m thinking specifically, Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a young professor and scholar who made many visits to the islands over the years for personal and professional reasons.
Mabalon returned to her native Stockton for good last Friday as her family and friends buried her, but not her memory, nor the history she helped uncover and preserve.
A week from her 46th birthday, the San Francisco State professor’s tragic death Aug. 10 while vacationing in Kauai has been difficult to process.
She was snorkeling, then came up for air. That’s when she experienced an asthma attack, according to family members. She had her inhaler, but it wasn’t enough. Her sister and a good Samaritan put her on her back and pulled her to shore. But they couldn’t stabilize her. When the ambulance came to take her to the ER, last ditch efforts couldn’t revive her.
The body has returned, but I know Dawn’s spirit still stays somewhere over there, in Hawaii, island hopping from her first stop in eternity, Kauai.
WHY DAWN IS IMPORTANT
I’ve described Mabalon as a bright energetic ball of fire who took American Filipinos and U.S. history and fused them with an activist’s passion that empowered the ignored and enlightened the ignorant.
If you didn’t know the story, you finally got it.
If you were heretofore invisible, you were finally seen.
She didn’t bother with the veritable first draft of history, a/k/a “the news.” Mabalon, who originally set out to be a journalist at the Record, looked to make a lasting impact. She went from C student at Stockton’s Edison High, to Delta Junior College, then UCLA, and ultimately got her Ph.D in at Stanford.
Her thesis that put the forgotten Filipinos of America into the academy, became the 2013 book, “Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California.”
“Filipina/o”? A bold declaration of inclusion. Mabalon was her own rebellious stylebook.
I first met her in 2003 when I worked the diversity beat for the Record. Along with Dillon Delvo, her Little Manila Foundation co-founder, Dawn was a key source as I wrote stories about their effort to preserve the blighted blocks of Stockton’s “Little Manila.”
“It was her idea to create and preserve Little Manila in Stockton as a historical district,” Delvo told me when we first heard the news of Mabalon’s death. “In my heart, I said there’s no way we could beat the developers. But I was wrong.”
During the mourning period, someone dug up a Facebook post from Mabalon’s book launch.
“If it weren’t for the journalistic skills of this man, Emil Guillermo,” she wrote, “Little Manila would be a parking lot.”
Overstated, for sure. But reading it now five years later just made me cry.
Since then, I’ve used her book like a bible to compare my own father’s “manong” story of coming to the U.S. as a colonized American Filipino with the facts from Mabalon’s scholarly work.
In one of my last emails to Mabalon, I asked about the lynchings east of San Francisco in San Joaquin County. Mabalon’s painstaking research was in “Little Manila.” “A contractor driving near Lodi, just north of Stockton, saw two Filipinos hanging from a tree, and one burned body propped up against the tree trunk,” she wrote, citing an August 1930 story in The Three Stars, a Stockton Filipino labor newspaper.
Filipinos lynched in Jim Crowpino California? It happened.
Mabalon’s book made Stockton the historical example of Asian American assimilation, and how despite the racism, Filipino genes could not be denied. Interesting, how in March 6, 1930, the very paper she and I once worked for, the Stockton Record, had once declared in an editorial that Filipinos were “unassimilable.”
But Mabalon knew there was a “Filipino there” there-- thriving in Stockton. And that it was worth noting, no less than a Jamestown.
That’s how important Dawn Mabalon is to Filipinos in America and to whomever is interested in the historical truth. She did the legwork, wrote the book. This is how it went down. It can’t be ignored. It’s our story.
At his eulogy for Mabalon, her Little Manila co-founder Delvo took note of Mabalon’s vision. One of the biggest hurdles for the community, he said, has been overcoming a colonial mentality, the hangover from centuries of colonial rule. Delvo defined it as the “internalized attitudes of ethnic inferiority from the effects of colonization and a corresponding belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own.”
“Dawn was the most decolonized of all of us,” Delvo said repeatedly as if a mantra. “She saw her community not just for what it was, but what it could be… Dawn was the most decolonized of all of us.”
When I last saw Mabalon in July, we communicated like two people on a mission, linked by the past, and driven by the common goals of advancing our sense of “Filipinoness” in America.
She gave me the respect of an elder. I respected her youthful energy, smarts, and the legacy she was still creating: A definitive biography of labor leader Larry Itliong, as well as a children’s book on Itliong. She was scheduled to speak in Washington, DC in August on Filipino Americans and civil rights.
She apologized for not yet seeing my “Amok Monologues” and would see it in California, she said. And then we both gave each other a big hug, for what we didn’t realize would be the last time, live and in the flesh.
Dawn Mabalon was a ball of fire.
And now as we fight through the sad darkness, we realize just how much we’ve lost.
EMIL GUILLERMO is an award-winning journalist and commentator who writes from Northern California. He recently won the 2015 Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice from the Asian American Journalists Association California.