Chula Vista's Filipinos of South Bay exhibit renewed for another year
The exhibit is tucked away in the back corner of Chula Vista’s central library.
Inside, visitor's are immediately transported across time. Old flags, beauty pageant sashes, family photographs and dozens of other artifacts make up the Filipinos of South Bay exhibit, a sweeping history of the Filipino diaspora in San Diego County.
The exhibit shines a light on the long legacy of the county’s largest Asian American community — a legacy that organizers said is still fighting to be recognized.
The project was set to wind down in December, after just over a year on display. But last month, after swells of community support, the exhibit’s organizers announced that they had been asked to keep it running through the end of next year.
“We’re just proud,” said PASACAT Executive Director Anamarie Labao Cabato, who co-chaired the exhibit. “It was a beautiful collaboration.”
The exhibit is a joint project of the National City-based Filipino dance company PASACAT, the Filipino American National Historical Society’s San Diego chapter, and the Council of Philippine American Organizations of San Diego.
It is the latest exhibit hosted by the Chula Vista Heritage Museum, which focuses on sharing the history of the South Bay.
The exhibit shares different moments from the vast and varied Filipino immigration experience — from grand stories of crossing the Pacific Ocean to more local memories of building communities here in San Diego County.
One display case includes a crimson United Farm Workers flag that Larry Itliong and other Filipino labor organizers carried alongside Cesar Chavez. Another shows newspaper clippings of a tiny Imperial Beach barbershop that would transform into a dance studio in the evenings.
One of historian Judy Patacsil’s favorite stories is of the Manong, or “elder brother,” generation — the very first Filipino immigrants to arrive on the West Coast. Many, including her father, served the U.S. military in the Pacific. Then, banned from marrying other Americans by federal laws enforcing racial segregation, he and other immigrants returned to the Philippines to marry before returning to the United States with their families.
“With that then came the communities,” said Patacsil, who also serves as a co-chair of the exhibit.
For Cabato, who grew up in National City, some of the most important parts of the exhibit are the three tall cases at the center of the room. Those displays share the history of Filipino community organizations, dance groups and churches — what she calls the “pillars of the community.”
“Bringing everyone together was so important, and this is what these three cases represent,” Cabato said.
The exhibit also illuminates just how much of Filipino American history is underrepresented in San Diego and across California, organizers said.
Filipinos are the largest Asian American group in the San Diego region and one of the largest in the state, second only to Chinese Americans. But Cabato and Patacsil said many Californians are not taught their stories.
Historians like James Paligutan say this is because the Filipino immigration story is so connected to the United States’ history as an imperial power in the Pacific — and because Americans have yet to reckon with that past.
Patacsil said they are trying to change that with this exhibit.
“Representation matters,” she said. “To see yourself in places like this is really important.”
Now, this display of history and culture will live on at the library for another year. Cabato hopes everyone who visits will feel a connection to its stories.
“Hopefully they will see a little bit about their own journey in this exhibit,” she said.
The Filipinos of South Bay exhibit is open to visitors at the Chula Vista Library Civic Center Branch through December 2024.