#GetLit: A Literary Homage to Dawn Mabalon
My heart sank when I first heard the news. Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon’s passing hit me in a different kind of way--a visceral shock to the body as something akin to regret made its way to my chest. I was somewhere in Southern California that day, and as I watched messages and posts of condolences, loss and pain on social media started pouring in, all I could think of was sayang.
Sayang because I never officially met Dawn, although we crossed paths many times in different spaces in San Francisco. The last time I saw her was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at an #AllPinayEverything literature panel. We were both queued up to speak to Elaine Castillo, and I remembered making a mental note to (finally) introduce myself. I had just written a feature on a children’s book she co-wrote about Larry Itliong which was my first real introduction to her work. I ended up leaving without shaking her hand (or giving her a hug), thinking the opportunity would present itself at the many events I was bound to run into her.
But my moment with Dawn never came. My remorse led me to San Francisco Public Library’s Filipiniana Center instead, an alcove of Filipino books at the library’s third floor. If there was a way for me to get to know Dawn in my own way, I thought I could do it through the page.
“I was born and raised in Stockton, California, the daughter and granddaughter of Filipina/o immigrants who called Stockton home for much of the twentieth century.”
To get to know Dawn is to know Stockton--its richness, its history-laden streets, its people. Filipinos in Stockton traces the immigration of Filipinos and how many settled in the San Joaquin Delta region because of year-round agricultural work. In Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California, Dawn places Stockton’s “Little Manila” neighborhood at the core of historical memory and cultural transformation. The book creates an ethnography that traces the lineage, migration and personal experiences of Filipinos living east of San Francisco, up to the destruction of their communities in the 60s and the 90s. In the vestiges of growing up Filipina/o American, Dawn illustrates the ways our communities have toggled between homecoming and homegoing.
In Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Thought, Dawn wrote about the struggles of young Pinays in Stockton deeply embroiled in the beauty queen contest circuit that their parents pressured them into participating. Her piece Beauty Queens, Bomber Pilots, and Basketball Players: Second-Generation Filipina Americans in Stockton, California, 1930s to 1950s explores the discussion of gender roles and the commodification of the Filipina body. Faced with pressure from their parents and exacerbated by an intense scrutiny of the community and ethnic media, Dawn details the ways these Pinays resisted and created spaces beyond the confines of rigid gender roles.
The book Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse is a compilation of essays that examines how the history of the colonial Philippines has shaped Filipino-American culture and identity. Dawn’s essay Losing Little Manila captures how fixtures--both cultural and physical--created a home for Filipinos in the Diaspora in Stockton’s Little Manila. In the food reader Eating Asia America, she wrote about cooking, eating, and becoming Filipina/o American before World War II. In the book Remarkable Women of Stockton, her profile shone as Little Manila’s champion alongside Dolores Huerta and Maxine Hong Kingston.
I carried these books and spread them across the table, spines and pages gleaming with Dawn’s name, their weight nowhere near the heaviness her passing has left. Beyond these titles, countless scholars, authors and many others have listed and acknowledged Dawn for her support and mentorship in their own work. When I look at these books, I see the tireless work of a Pinay, an indefatigable historian of her people, whose work on Filipina/o Americans in Stockton is unparalleled in breadth and scope.
Maybe sayang is not the best word to describe how I feel after all, but salamat. Salamat in the most reverent and tender sense, Dawn, for the ways you’ve uplifted, and committed our people’s history and struggles on the page. That even though we’ve never met, I will remember you in this lifetime the same way you’ve dedicated your life and your work to the history of our people.
Pia Cortez is a Bay Area-based community organizer and the creator of Libromance, a blog dedicated to book reviews and literary features with a queer Pinay immigrant perspective. She believes in the power and beauty of the written word: how stories stretch time and transcend boundaries, how books simultaneously challenge and console, how reading becomes an act of resistance. Pia hopes to transform reading from a solitary pursuit and turn it into a tool for community-building, a catalyst for ruckus-raising. When she’s not currently reading the world, she’s experimenting with #booklooks, a play on books and fashion.