As reported today, Stockton Unified’s first Asian-American teacher passed away last week. Today’s story contained only a fraction of the information that could have appeared in a recounting of Flora Mata’s life.
Stockton native Dawn Mabalon has written extensively about the history of Stockton’s Filipino community. The author of “Little Manila Is In The Heart” shared transcripts of interviews she conducted with Flora Mata a decade ago. Mata’s relatives shared photographs, old and recent.
From Mabalon’s transcripts: “I don’t think there were opportunities. I only recall that when I graduated from UCLA, the dean of women called me and said that if I wanted a job, a professional job commensurate to my education, I could go to Hawaii. They would look for a job for me there. … Why is it that America would educate the minority and not give them an opportunity to use this education? I remember asking the dean that. The woman said, ‘The opportunity will come when you can use your education. But right now, we don’t know where and when.’ ”
After college at UCLA, Flora and Vidal headed to the Philippines to begin their teaching careers. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, everything changed. “Before we knew it — perhaps a few months later — the Philippines was taken over by Japan. I remember that people ran to the barrios or mountains where we went. We were short of food, short of clothing, short of soap. I remember having to wash my clothes in the river. Everyone else was suffering along with us.”
The young couple returned to Stockton after WWII. “One day we read that substitute teachers were needed and anyone with a college degree would be accepted, and they were short of substitutes. … I remember my husband saying, ‘You are a UCLA graduate and you speak like any American. Why don’t you apply?’ And I said, ‘No, there just isn’t any hope.’ And he said, ‘It doesn’t hurt to try. We’re already at the bottom of what we expect in life as far as earning a living. You should try.’
“I remember going to a corner store, the grocery store right across from Lafayette School, to make my telephone call because we couldn’t afford a telephone at home. I spoke to a lady who said, ‘If you have a degree from UCLA, you must come.’ I told her, ‘Before I come I want you to know who I am and what I am. I am not a Caucasian. I am Filipino.’ And I remember the silence on the other side of the telephone. Then the voice over the phone said, ‘I would like to see you just the same, tomorrow.’ ”
Her first day as a substitute was eventful. “The children looked at me with surprise, and one child asked, ‘What are you?’ I said to him, ‘I’m a human being.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not what I mean. What are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m a Filipino.’ ‘What’s that?’ he wanted to know. This was the third grade. I looked back into my memory and said, ‘Children must know other races, and not only when they reach third grade. This must start in their homes. Their parents must be educated to know there are other kinds of people in this world.’ ”
When she got a full-time teaching job, Flora told her husband, “Here is an opportunity, the grandest opportunity that comes in my life.”