Remembering Dawn Bohulano Mabalon

By Michelle Magalong posted 05-14-2019 17:13

It is my hope that the love, respect, and commitment we feel for our historic community runs deeper than anything that can divide us. Little Manila will always be in our hearts. —Dawn Bohulano Mabalon 

 Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a passionate activist who dedicated her life to chronicling the rich Filipina/o-American history in California and the United States, died unexpectedly in August 2018. Mabalon was well known as the premiere historian focused on Filipina/o Americans of her generation and an award-winning national and global advocate of Filipina/o American history. She was a respected author, filmmaker, community leader, historic preservationist, and activist who leaves us with an important and far-reaching legacy that was grounded in love for the Filipina/o American community, but extended beyond it. She was also a poet, chef, and baker—and a daughter, wife, sister, and auntie-ninang (godmother). 

Courtesy of the family of Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon

Born and raised in Stockton, California, Mabalon graduated from Edison High School. She attended Delta Community College in Stockton before earning her bachelor’s degree in history with a specialization in Asian American studies, magna cum laude, in 1994, and her master’s degree in Asian American studies in 1997—both from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received the Distinguished Young Alumnus award from the UCLA Pilipino Alumni Association in 2003. She earned her doctorate in history from Stanford University in 2004. She was an associate professor with tenure in the Department of History at San Francisco State University, and her research focused on Filipina/o American history, historic and cultural preservation, and Filipina/o American foodways. 

Mabalon wrote “Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California” in 2013; the book won honorable mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award in 2014. In 2018 she and Gayle Romasanta co-authored a children's book, “Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong” in 2018. A book tour recently launched in Delano, California, will have several events across the nation this year. 

In addition to her scholarly and creative endeavors, Mabalon worked extensively in the Filipina/o American community with a focus on preservation and on disseminating knowledge to the broader public. She did this work not only through community events, festivals, conferences, symposia, and written public statements but also as a frequently featured expert on public radio and in documentaries. 

Mabalon was a tireless advocate for saving the Little Manila neighborhood in Stockton, California, home to the largest Filipina/o population in the United States. She co-founded the Little Manila Foundation—now Little Manila Rising—which advocates for the historic preservation of the Little Manila Historic Site and provides education and leadership to revitalize the Filipina/o American community. Through Mabalon’s visionary work, the organization saved the historic buildings of Little Manila from demolition in 2003. Her leadership was also instrumental to Little Manila appearing on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered List in 2003, which, as she put it in her book about the neighborhood, “brought a media spotlight to our small city in the summer of 2003.” Little Manila Rising has received many awards and accolades for its innovative preservation work, including amplifying the community’s history through the music videos of hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas. Empowered by Mabalon’s activism and research, Little Manila Rising’s students also fought for Ethnic Studies courses in Stockton Unified School District’s high schools—and, in 2014, they won!

Mabalon served on the planning committee of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation’s (APIAHiP) first National Forum in San Francisco in 2010. She remained on the steering committee and became one of the founding members of the organization’s board of directors. She was active in the planning of every subsequent National Forum and numerous other APIAHiP events. Many of the organization’s members recall her wonderful, rich storytelling, infectious smile, and brilliant scholarship as she often spoke of her hometown of Stockton and Little Manila at APIAHiP events. She co-authored “Cultural Preservation Policy and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: Reimagining Historic Preservation in Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities” in UCLA's AAPI Nexus Journal on behalf of APIAHiP in 2016. The same year, APIAHiP honored Mabalon with a "Leaders in Preservation" award for her work in documenting, preserving, and elevating the stories of Little Manila and Stockton.

She also received the Community Service Award from Filipinas magazine in 2004 as well as a service award from the community organization Legionarios del Trabajo in 2005. She served as Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) National Scholar and Trustee since 2004. In 2013 Mabalon was named one of the 100 Most Influential Filipinas in the world by the Filipino Women’s Network. Most recently, she received the Mid-Career Award from the Filipino Section of the Asian American Studies Association in 2018. Mabalon also served as the board president of Pin@y Educational Partnerships, as an advisory member of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, as a humanities adviser for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s "I Want the Wide American Earth" exhibition, and as an adviser for the César E. Chávez National Monument's long-range interpretive plan.

Mabalon had a strong commitment to preserving and telling the stories not only of Filipina/o Americans but also of all Americans through public history and place. Memorials in her honor were held in Stockton, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Her legacy will live on through her books and research and through the organizations she tirelessly championed—most notably Little Manila Rising.

 Michelle Magalong, Ph.D., is the executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation.


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