In 2021, California became the first U.S. state to require that public high schools teach ethnic studies. Given polarized politics over what that mandate might mean, this Essay reflects on the role of ethnic studies curriculum in one place, through the voices of three people. The place is Stockton—the most diverse city in America and home to more than twenty years of grassroots investment in ethnic studies courses. Oral histories from three generations of the leaders who built that local curriculum—each of whom was shaped by their own ethnic studies education—offer a personal window into what the work has been about. Set in a city, like many others, with a long history of neighborhood and school segregation, these Stockton stories provide a chance to reflect on the curriculum’s legal history as a court-ordered remedy for de jure and de facto school segregation. 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.

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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. 1 These facts, like many about Stockton’s Filipino community, were assembled in a masterful urban history by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, whose academic research and activism for historical preservation have partnered with and been an inspiration for Delvo and many of the ethnic studies leaders mentioned in this Essay. See Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California 152 (2013). 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. 2 Id. at 86, 155–58; Gabriel J. Chin & Anna Ratner, The End of California’s Anti-Asian Alien Land Law: A Case Study in Reparations and Transitional Justice, 29 Asian Am. L.J. 17, 18 (2022). 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. 3 Mabalon, supra note 1, at 169, 235.

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. 4 Id. at 254–63. 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. 5 Interview with Dillon Delvo, Exec. Dir., Little Manila Rising, in Stockton, Ca. (Mar. 27, 2018) (on file with the Columbia Law Review). 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. 6 Mabalon, supra note 1, at 258–65; Gayle Romasanta, Why It Is Important to Know the Story of Filipino-American Larry Itliong, Smithsonian Mag. ( July 24, 2019), []. That context, Delvo said, “allowed me to say thank you to my father before he died.” 7 Interview with Dillon Delvo, supra note 5. 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.” 8 Id.

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. 9 See Natalie Escobar, How 50 Years of Latino Studies Shaped History Education, Atlantic (Sept. 7, 2018), (on file with the Columbia Law Review); Dana Goldstein, Push for Ethnic Studies in Schools Faces a Dilemma: Whose Stories to Tell, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2019), (on file with the Columbia Law Review); Sophie Quinton, Good Teachers Embrace Their Students’ Cultural Backgrounds, Atlantic (Nov. 11, 2013), (on file with the Columbia Law Review). So too, ethnic studies is under assault in America. 10 Melinda D. Anderson, The Ongoing Battle Over Ethnic Studies, Atlantic (Mar. 7, 2016), (on file with the Columbia Law Review); John Fensterwald, Civics Proponents Urge Common Ground in Battles Over Ethnic Studies, EdSource (Sept. 28, 2021), []; see also, e.g., Editorial, California’s Ethnic Studies Mandate, Wall St. J. (Mar. 16, 2021), (on file with the Columbia Law Review) (opposing California’s ethnic studies curriculum and describing it as “invert[ing] traditional American ideas of individual merit, opportunity and success”); Bret Stephens, Opinion, California’s Ethnic Studies Follies, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2021), (on file with the Columbia Law Review) (opposing ethnic studies as “a curriculum that magnifies differences, encourages tribal loyalties and advances ideological groupthink”). 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. 11 Gaby Galvin, America’s Most Diverse City Is Still Scarred by Its Past, U.S. News & World Rep. ( Jan. 22, 2020), []. 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. 12 Mackenzie Mays, California Students Will Have to Take Ethnic Studies to Get a Diploma, Politico (Oct. 14, 2021), []. 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. 13 For valuable law review articles evaluating the controversies over K–12 ethnic studies (most of which focus on the political battles in Arizona), see generally Steven W. Bender, Silencing Culture and Culturing Silence: A Comparative Experience of Centrifugal Forces in the Ethnic Studies Curriculum, 33 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 329 (2000) (personal reflection on silence and race in undergraduate ethnic studies classes); Richard Delgado, Precious Knowledge: State Bans on Ethnic Studies, Book Traffickers (Librotraficantes), and a New Type of Race Trial, 91 N.C. L. Rev. 1513 (2013) (framing the legal battles over ethnic studies, including in Arizona, as “the right to learn one’s own history and culture”); Nicholas B. Lundholm, Cutting Class: Why Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban Won’t Ban Ethnic Studies, 53 Ariz. L. Rev. 1041 (2011) (presenting a close analysis of the history of Arizona’s H.B. 2281 and the ethnic studies curriculum it targeted); Ronald L. Mize, The Contemporary Assault on Ethnic Studies, 47 J. Marshall L. Rev. 1189 (2014) (providing a critical analysis of why “ethnic studies knowledge [is] deemed dangerous”); Margaret E. Montoya, Silence and Silencing: Their Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces in Legal Communication, Pedagogy and Discourse, 33 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 263 (2000) (drawing from humanities and cultural analysis of silence and silencing to analyze and critique law school pedagogy); Lupe S. Salinas, Arizona’s Desire to Eliminate Ethnic Studies Programs: A Time to Take the “Pill” and to Engage Latino Students in Critical Education About Their History, 14 Harv. Latino L. Rev. 301 (2011) (describing the history of and backlash against the Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District). Salinas’s piece makes the additional valuable point that “high school students . . . are also mature enough to learn of the injustices that our country perpetrated . . . . Only then can we live up to the true meaning of the First Amendment by allowing those with knowledge to share it and those who lack it to receive that wisdom.” Id. at 323. 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 14 For one of many windows into rising racial diversity overall in American public schools, but the ongoing racial segregation within any given school, see Katherine Schaeffer, U.S. Public School Students Often Go to Schools Where at Least Half of Their Peers Are the Same Race or Ethnicity, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Dec. 15, 2021), []. ), 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.