Dillon Delvo grew up in Stockton, California, in what scholars call a tri-generational family. His father was sixty-three when Delvo was born and decades older than Delvo’s mother. As a young boy, Delvo was embarrassed of their age difference, mortified to think that his dad was “a horny old man.” Behind his father’s back, Delvo tried to pass him off as his grandfather. But Delvo’s views began to change after he left for college in San Francisco. He took his first Asian American studies course, majored in ethnic studies, and completed a thesis on Filipino history in California. The reason tri-generational families were common among Filipino Americans, he learned, was not rooted in a preference for younger women. That pattern reflected the fact that Delvo’s father and other Filipino men were legally and practically barred from marrying during their prime years. Filipinos like Delvo’s father were recruited to labor in California agriculture at ratios of about fourteen men to every one woman.
Those men were then subject to strict anti-miscegenation laws until 1948, which prohibited them from marrying anyone classified as white—a bar that, under California race law at the time, included the Mexican American women who lived in Filipinos’ segregated neighborhoods. Strict immigration quotas barred Filipino men from returning to the Philippines to marry and moving back to California.
They were also subject to prohibitions on land ownership under so-called Alien Land Laws until 1942, which made the community reliant on cash wages without the ability to build wealth to support a family.
College research and courses taught Delvo another aspect of his father’s generation: They were not passive victims. They were leaders in shaping a more ethical California. They had been organizers in the California farmworker movement of the 1960s, one of the most legendary civil and economic rights battles in U.S. history.
Delvo learned that the downtown blocks that he grew up calling “Skid Row” used to be a hub for some of this organizing and the home of the largest Filipino community outside of the Philippines. The area’s older nickname had been “Little Manila.” Filipinos owned businesses there, pooled their funds to secure dignified burials for their dead, and eventually opened a community center to support civic ties and cultural practices.
None of these facts were discussed during Delvo’s childhood or in the Filipino community in Stockton. His network had “melting pot, not salad bowl people,” Delvo says.
Look ahead, Delvo was taught. In Stockton public schools, where local and California history started and ended with the Gold Rush, Delvo didn’t learn any of this history either. But he got the education he needed just in the nick of time. Before his father died, Delvo had learned his truer family story: His father had to wait until his 50s before he could fall in love, marry, and become a parent; and he had spent his youth organizing for Filipino farmworkers’ labor rights alongside the visionary leader Larry Itliong.
That context, Delvo said, “allowed me to say thank you to my father before he died.”
As Delvo spoke, he paused and swallowed, noticing how that description failed to live up to what he meant to convey. “It was so much deeper than words can express.”
Ethnic studies had given Delvo a truer history of his state and his city, which in turn transformed how he understood his own family. That kind of curriculum is ascendant in America.
So too, ethnic studies is under assault in America.
In this moment of polarized politics, this Essay reflects on the role of that curriculum in one place, for three people. The place is Stockton—the most diverse city in America and home to a grassroots, DIY ethnic studies movement dating back to the 2000s.
Stockton can be a reference point for other school districts and states, including California, which in 2021 became the first U.S. state to require that public high schools teach ethnic studies.
Three generations of leaders of ethnic studies curriculum in Stockton—each of whom was shaped personally by their own ethnic studies education—offer a window into what the work has been about.
Our purpose is more modest than to take up the academic or political debate about the merits of the curriculum, or even the choice about whether to standardize it statewide.
We simply intend to sit with the more personal vantage points of three people (each a teacher or a student) in one city as a way of regrounding those debates. What follows is a brief racial history of the city of Stockton (in Part I) and a look at the origin and legal context of the city’s ethnic studies curriculum (in Part II). Three personal narratives (in Part III) help chronicle the development of the curriculum and bring its impacts to life. In the Conclusion, in light of the ongoing history of segregation and inequality in Stockton, we reflect back on the use of ethnic studies as a court-ordered remedy for de jure and de facto school segregation.
Ethnic studies, these voices convey, is part of how Stockton is healing from more than 150 years of racial segregation in housing and education. In a city (like so many others) where race determined housing and housing determined educational opportunity, Stockton has needed to rescue its students’ self-confidence, educational ambition, sense of possibility, and trust in one another. In public high schools that are majority non-white (which is also common
), that work has meant diversifying the authors, leaders, and historical facts that youth meet during their school years. What segregation long degraded—the sense of self and possibility—ethnic studies has tried to rebuild. Ethnic studies could not integrate Stockton’s schools but it could, and did, finally integrate the content of their lessons to reflect the people in the room.