Like every other Monday night, Celin Corpuz was getting ready for dance practice at the Little Manila Center in Stockton. When she arrived, she stood alongside her fellow dance students, tears in her eyes, looking at words scrawled across a window in nail polish and portions of the center’s banners ripped down.
The month of October is Filipino American History Month. The Little Manila Dance Collective students, ranging from second grade to high school, were supposed to be practicing for their upcoming Bay Area tour to celebrate the occasion.
The graffiti, portions of which were illegible and misspelled, include the words “whittie,” “brainwashed” and “bigots.” The ripped vinyl banners displayed historic photographs of Filipinos and the words “Community, Culture, Empowerment, Arts, History, and Heritage.”
“[The students] are well aware of the history of anti-immigrant and anti-people of color sentiment in the country,” said Dillon Delvo, executive director and co-founder of the Little Manila Foundation. “They definitely wondered, ‘Is there something behind this? I thought we were done with this.’ ”
The Stockton Police Department is investigating the Oct. 9 incident as a vandalism case and have not yet made any arrests. Based on interviews of people in the surrounding area, police have ruled out the possibility of it being a hate crime, according to police spokesman Joseph Silva.
People at the Little Manila Center are still questioning the motive behind the damage.
“There are multiple businesses on our street. It doesn’t seem coincidental that our storefront was the only one targeted and it is October,” said Brian Batugo, art director at the Little Manila Foundation and instructor of Monday’s class.
A neighbor reported seeing a “deranged, possibly homeless” woman at the center an hour before the dance students had arrived, according to Delvo. Police also told him there may be surveillance cameras on nearby traffic lights they will examine.
Delvo estimated the total damage at $800, and the Little Manila Foundation is accepting donations to help replace the banners.
“I guess until the person is apprehended, we don’t really know the motive,” Delvo said. “But I do know the feeling of our community, and it’s definitely one of pain.”
Mayor Michael Tubbs spoke to those who discovered the vandalism and wrote on Twitter that the incident was “unacceptable” the night it happened. He contacted the police chief to prompt the investigation.
“At one point, Stockton was home to the largest Filipino population outside of the Philippines. However, attacks on immigrant communities isn’t anything new,” said Tubbs in a statement to KQED.
The Little Manila Foundation works to preserve the Little Manila Historic Site in Stockton, as well as offering dance classes and after-school programs to educate people about the Filipino community and heritage. But it has had a rocky history in the community.
Filipino-Americans flocked to Stockton to work in the agricultural industry and send money to their families back home in the early 20th century. It became the heart of Filipino America by the 1920s.
Over the next two decades, Filipinos weren’t allowed on the north side of Main Street in Stockton, as it was a dividing line for people of color in the city. Signs saying “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” were put into windows during this era, according to a statement issued by the Little Manila Foundation.
The Filipino Federation of America building was bombed in 1930. Twenty years later, state and local officials began bulldozing large portions of Little Manila to “improve downtown” and build a freeway. This displaced many Filipinos who had established businesses in the area for decades.
Delvo and Dawn Mabalon saw this destruction when they arrived in Stockton in 1999, and together they established the nonprofit Little Manila Foundation.
Today, students learn about their culture’s history through school programs held at the center. “We want to give young people the foundation of history and activism,” Delvo said.
“I remember telling my students, ‘I know something traumatic has just hit, and I know we don’t really know what it’s about,’ ” said Batugo after the incident. “‘But we do know that the work we do here in our community is positive, so let’s channel this energy that we’re all feeling into our art.'”
After students took photos of the vandalism to share on social media Monday night, Batugo rallied his class together. He encouraged the students to begin their practice and prepare for their upcoming performances to celebrate Filipino American History Month.
“It’s sad to see that nearly 90 years later, in 2017, we are still dealing with the same issues of hate,” said Tubbs. “The good news is that actions meant to harm will only make us stronger as a community.”