Writers Gayle Romasanta and Dawn Mabalon are on a mission to write the first Filipino American history book for children.
February 21, 2018
In California public school classrooms, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta are well-known names. The two Mexican American labor leaders founded what became the United Farm Workers union in the 1960s, were important civil rights activists, and have been part of California’s public school curriculum since the early 2000s. But they weren’t the only ones leading the movement. Starting in October 2013, thanks to a bill passed in the state assembly, students in the golden state now also learn about the contributions Filipino Americans made to the farm labor movement.
One of the leaders now included in the California curriculum is Filipino American activist Larry Itliong, who worked as a migrant farm worker and labor organizer across the western United States for years before he led the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, which marked one of the first times Mexican farm workers went on strike alongside Filipino workers. Itliong would go on to serve as co-founder and Assistant Director of United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez.
Historian Dawn Mabalon and writer and publisher Gayle Romasanta teamed up recently to dream up a series of children’s books that introduce a new generation to Filipino American history, starting with Larry Itliong’s story. Dawn and Gayle both grew up in Stockton, California, known to many as Little Manila, and are themselves descendants of farm workers. Their collaborative work dates back 18 years to when they shared the stage as stand-up comedians at Bindlestiff Studio, the storied San Francisco Filipino American arts center.
With Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, the first book in the series, they have found each other again. They spoke to each other about the roots of their interest in Filipino American history, the books they read growing up, and the power of children’s literature.
Gayle: Let’s talk about AB-123 and AB-2016. So AB-123 is the assembly bill that Rob Bonta wrote, and it was approved in 2013.
Gayle: It was signed in by the governor in 2015. It says that for grades 7-12, and it’s for public school students, there’s now a requirement that they need to learn about the contributions of Filipino Americans in the labor movement, right? In the farm labor movement of California.
And also, there’s Assembly Bill 2016 that says public school will have available to them from the California Department of Education a model curriculum for ethnic studies by 2020.
So with these two bills that were just passed—2013, and one was passed 2016—do you think we needed these bills in order to start writing about Filipino American history for children, for students? Or we would’ve been successful with or without these bills?
Dawn: I think since this work is so necessary, and the fact that these bills have been passed only helps our cause. I think we would’ve done the books regardless, because I feel like we can’t sit around and wait for legislation to catch up to what we need as a community, but I think it’s perfect timing for these bills to be passed. It’s just serendipitous.
Gayle: It is serendipitous, I think that is the right word. To imagine what kind of generation we’re going to have, who are going to have information in children’s books, instructional materials, curriculum about Filipino American history in the United States, but also ethnic studies of other people’s movements throughout the United States. I mean, what kind of student will we have then by the time they’re graduating from high school? That is definitely what excites me.
The fact that our next generation, because of these books, because of the research that people have been doing for decades, from FANHS [Filipino American National Historical Society] and community folks and people in the academy, we will never again have a Filipino generation grow up not knowing who Larry Itliong is, or Philip Vera Cruz, or the I Hotel. They’re going to be moving the world! They better be equipped.
This collaboration is really based off of Dawn’s work about Larry Itliong. We’re putting together a children’s book using her research to create the first Filipino American history book for children. I wanna say it’s the first one ‘cause I can’t find one that is very specific to children and is about Filipino American history.
Dawn: When you called me and you said you wanted to do something like this, I was in a place where I had been frustrated with the pace of where my academic Larry Itliong book was going. I had done all this research, yet I was teaching so much and didn’t have the resources to travel and do all the research I needed to finish this thick, academic, rigorously researched book on Larry Itliong that I had wanted to write. I realized that working on a children’s book would be a really great way to get the research I’ve already done out to our youth. I mean, they’re not getting any younger.
Gayle: And we need to get these books to them at an earlier age. I have been looking for books like these for my kids, and I’ve got a brood of four.
My children’s book Beautiful Eyes is bilingual, English-Tagalog, and is about loving yourself and your body parts. “I have a beautiful nose, I have beautiful eyes.” I had sent the book to publishers, but no one wanted to pick it up. It was sitting there for about a decade until the writer and publisher Eileen [Tabios] saved the day. San Francisco Unified School District picked up the book as curriculum for the Filipino English-language program at three elementary schools. After seeing how that happened, how it’s possible to just create your own books and publish them, I realized we can’t wait anymore, because no one else is going to do it, and if they do, they might leave us out of the story again.
Dawn: Yeah, and if there’s anything that the last 20 years of our collaborations—of the work we’ve been involved in, separately and together—has taught us, it’s that our stories deserve to be told. And who better than us to tell them? I think it’s really special that the two of us are daughters of Stockton, and the daughters, nieces, and granddaughters of farmworkers. We can share this story that we know intimately, but my godchildren and my nieces and nephews, they’ll never know intimately what it meant to work in the fields for our ancestors, and how important it was that Larry and his generation stood up for what they believed was right, and how much that benefited not only Filipinos, but so many millions of other people all around the United States and all around the world. We don’t know that story, at least, at a macro-community level.
Gayle: I think the main goal is to publish a series of eight children’s books focused on Filipino American history, or Filipino American leaders—four men, four women. I created this publishing house called Bridge + Delta so that we have the platform, and one arm of the publishing house is strictly devoted to our history. Our plan is to put them in educators’ hands, to put them in school districts’ hands, and we’re going to distribute them throughout California and throughout the country so our voice is out there. Our stories cannot be ignored.
Dawn: As a professional historian, it’s definitely been a challenge for me to think about how to make this story compelling to young people. The problem is, Larry did not leave much behind. So a lot of the process is just like writing a history book, where you’re relying on Larry’s own words, on the handful of interviews he’s done, and on the papers that he left behind in Detroit. I’ve spent time in the archives of the United Farm Workers in Detroit. There’s a big labor library there that holds all the papers for Cesar Chavez, and Larry Itliong, and Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, Dorothy Huerta… so I had been trying to piece together what we know about Larry, and then making Larry’s life come alive for an eight-, nine-, ten-, eleven-year-old. As a historian, as someone who’s written primarily in a scholarly way, it’s been a really great learning experience in terms of how to make this compelling for kids. That’s been a really wonderful collaboration between us.
And then there’s also a collaboration with our illustrator, Dre Sibayan. Dre comes out of the community that you and I come out of. We know Dre from the Filipino American arts community way back in the 1990s and early 2000s here in San Francisco.
It really brings me back. I wanted to ask you, what were the children’s books that you loved?
Gayle: Well, that was the only thing we had, really. The only thing we had was the library. The Stockton Main Library—it was cold, it had air conditioning.
Dawn: We both spent a lot of time there. Yeah, that was my library. It’s now called the Cesar Chavez [Central] Library, in Stockton. My dad would come from the fields and go straight to the library, right from the fields.He would literally still have his work boots on, covered with dust, and he would go there. He was a voracious, voracious reader.
Gayle: That’s funny. My dad too.
Dawn: My mom was a kindergarten teacher, so she always encouraged me to read. I started reading when I was four years old. So I think there’s something about writing a children’s book now and realizing that what we write, that some of these words are, we hope, going to be some of the most formative words that these children will encounter.
I was just listening to a James Baldwin quote the other day, and he was saying something like, as African Americans, as black children, we grew up cheering Gary Cooper, but only later did we realize that we’re the Indians. And I was thinking about the books I really loved growing up. One set was the Little House on the Prairie books. I loved them, because they had a strong female character, and they were rooted in this historical period that was fascinating to me, and it was this girl that was having adventures, but I realize now that I was the Indian.
And with this book series, we’re going to be at the center.
Gayle: That’s funny, because for me the first book that really captured me when I was growing up, where I felt like I could be at the center, was Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s about a Native American girl off of the Santa Barbara Islands who gets left behind. She gets left behind because all of her people need to leave because the Russian sealers come in, or the otter, the pelts, and for some reason, they talk to them, and everybody left the island. They’re gonna go to Santa Barbara. She forgets something, her brother leaves. I think her brother passes away, and then she’s left there with a dog. So that’s the only one that I felt like, holy shit, she’s surviving on her own, she’s a brown girl, and she’s doing it on her own.
Dawn: Ah, I never read that book! I’ve seen it, but I never read it.
Gayle: You read it from second grade to fourth grade, or even fifth grade. But it’s really like the first—at least in the 1980s—the first real text with a brown person that got into the head of a little brown girl. And it had pictures to go along with it.
Dawn: And I thought I was the white girl on the prairie. [laughs]
Gayle: No, no, but we all did! She was probably the one of the few, if not only, brown people that I was presented with as literature, as a child. Isn’t that crazy to think that we are not presented with options at all?
Dawn: Yeah. I think there are so many more options now for our youth, but Filipino-specific, and Filipino American-specific, almost nothing. I mean, you have Cora Cooks’s picture book Pancit, that a lot of our young people in our community have loved.
Gayle: But there’s no Filipino American history books for kids.
Dawn: Nothing about Filipino Americans. And so we’re trying to make sure that another generation does not grow up like we did. Most of our heroes don’t appear on any stamps.
Gayle: But we’re readers, so we tried. I’m sure we would’ve come across that book.
Dawn: Children’s literature helps you figure out who you are. We’re hoping this book can be an intervention for this next generation of young people—not just Filipino Americans and Filipina Americans. We’re hoping it will join the ranks of books about Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, and Martin Luther King and Malcom X. We’re hoping that, for Filipino American youth, and youth of all backgrounds, that this could be a book that will inspire them to think about how they’re going to change the world.
Gayle: And I don’t know about you, but I had to dig for all of this when I went to college.
You had to work to find this information or take a specific class.
Dawn: We were fortunate to be the beneficiaries of the first generation to take ethnic studies for granted in the California universities.
We have to take what we learned at the college level and bring it to students who may never have access to ethnic studies at the college level, but they still deserve to know their history.
Gayle: …when we talk about learning from other political movements, what can we learn as Filipinos, or even with Asians?
Dawn: Well, I think one of the biggest lessons of the Delano Grape Strike that we’re trying to bring across in this book is how important it was for Filipinos and Mexicans to stand in solidarity with one another. And it was only through them standing together. And we know that there were more than just Filipinos and Mexicans in the union, the United Farm Workers—there were Yemenis, there were Puerto Ricans, there were African Americans, there were whites—and it was everybody standing together against injustice. And how important it is to do that, in whatever we do, in resisting oppression.
The Grape Strike would not have been successful were it not for the Civil Rights Movement, and people opening their eyes to injustice and oppression, and to the strategies of the United Farm Workers, which took from the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement: the hunger strikes, and the sit-ins, and the boycotts, and the marches.
We are living in an age when we don’t even have to tell our kids to be political. They’re watching TV, and they’re absorbing everything. It’s even more critical right now for kids to understand their history, because when you understand your history, you know you have possibilities for the future. And you understand what it takes to make change.
Dawn: There might be conservative voices that say, well, our kids don’t need to learn about there being signs in Stockton that say, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” But they have to understand the kinds of sacrifices their grandparents had to endure so that they didn’t have to see a sign like that. They have to understand that food gets on their table because people work to make that happen.
Gayle: So would you say that studying that kind of history is cyclical?
Dawn: I don’t necessarily think that things happen again and again, in exactly the same way. I think that human beings don’t learn lessons from the past, and allow certain things to happen again, or perpetrate similar oppressions again and again. So I think forces of corruption, greed, evil, and hate… they know that they can never know what they did before the Civil Rights Movement in the same way. Those of us who study history need to study it well, so that we understand how previous generations were able to win their battles, because we are now taking up their battles, into new battlefields.
Gayle: I agree, wholeheartedly. This book and the series is written basically by our community, within our community, and given to our community. So it’s not like it’s going through some kind of filter, or it’s going to get condensed, or changed.
Dawn: And I think that’s the power of this. That it’s a community effort, it’s a local, independent publishing house, our [priority] is not the bottom line. It is about the benefit of our community and the future of our children. We come from layer upon layer of buried past. And we’ve spent our lives trying to understand and survive those layers and uncover them.
For more information or to sign up to get Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, visit www.bridgedelta.com