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Filipina American historian to visit Delano, discuss importance of preserving family histories

When it comes to legacy, people often think of major life achievements for which they want to be remembered.

However, legacy can also be a way for people to preserve untold but critical family histories that enrich the narratives of California, the nation and sometimes, the world.

That’s one of the key messages that author, historian and university professor Dawn Bohulano Mabalon hopes to share when she visits the Bakersfield College Delano campus on Tuesday.

“We have to always ask ourselves: What legacies did our elders leave behind for us and what legacies are we going to leave behind for the next generation?” said Mabalon, a history professor at San Francisco State University and author of “Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California.”

The third generation Filipina American points out that a significant untapped part of such legacies can be drawn from the role farmworkers played in the Delano area and San Joaquin Valley.

“That the world was changed by what farm workers of all backgrounds did in Delano when they went on strike in 1965 and built the United Farm Workers to spark the farmworkers movement, and that we need to learn this history, learn from the victories and the mistakes those leaders made, because their work to make a better world continues with us,” Mabalon.

“We have to continue building solidarity with one another, learning each other's histories, and continue working together to make a better world," she said. "Mexicans and Filipinos are the two biggest ethnic groups in California. We have to learn how to work together and with other groups, build a society that is just, safe, and equitable for everyone. To do that, we need to learn from the past to move forward.”

She knows that from her own family experiences, which kept her focus from the time she was a community college student and later as a graduate of UCLA and Stanford University, where she earned a PhD in American history.

“The sacrifices of my elders really paved my path,” said Mabalon, “My grandfathers worked in the fields throughout the Santa Clara and San Joaquin valleys, salmon canneries in Alaska, and settled in Stockton.

"My maternal grandmother Concepcion Bohulano came here as a war bride and worked in the fields and fruit canneries in the San Joaquin Valley. She had a college degree and in 1962, became one of the first women of color to become a public school teacher in California. She taught in Tracy, California.”

Mabalon’s talk is part of the BC Digital Delano Rural Archives Showcase Event where, in addition to her talk, a showcase of local history will be shared and people can bring in pictures, letters and other family documents that can be harvested by archivists as part of the Digital Delano project, which was made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities.

With Filipinos being the largest Asian American group in California and the third largest in the nation, Mabalon has made it her life’s work to expand the historical narrative of Filipinas/os, and she hopes events like this can help even more. 

She wants to encourage students “to preserve their family histories,” she said. They should “start asking questions of their elders. Why did they come here? What were their expectations, their realities? How did they change the world? What legacies have they left for you to carry on to your community and descendants?"

Lonnie Bunch, director of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, said, ‘There are few things as noble as honoring our ancestors by remembering.’”

Oliver Rosales, a Bakersfield College history professor who is co-director of the Digital Delano project with Elisabeth Sundby, a reference librarian at the Bakersfield College Delano campus library, couldn’t agree more.

“The most meaningful thing to me has been the many tears from students, and by extension their grandparents and elder relatives that did not think their histories matter,” Rosales said. “Family history does matter.  This project has allowed young people, students in and around the greater Delano community, to see how their family stories connect with larger historical forces that have shaped their past.”

As part of these efforts, Bakersfield College Professor Chris Cruz-Boone created an assignment where students were assigned to interview a relative as part of her intercultural communications class.  

“The assignment is important because it helps students start important conversations with people in their lives,” Cruz-Boone said. “In this way, it also builds a bridge between their academic life and family life that for first generation student can be key to their resilience.”

And that alone is not only historical but life changing, Rosales said.

“Participating in the project allowed families a chance to see how their past intersects with the great currents of California and American history,” he said. “That's a powerful and mind-boggling change in perception for immigrant families especially, as well as for more established residents whose histories have not traditionally been recorded in established archives and connected to larger historical narratives.”

Olivia Garcia is a history professor at Bakersfield College. She is currently researching the life of UFW pioneering woman Esther Uranday and writing a book on a history of CSUB.

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