Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Most Miserable City In America?

California’s Central Valley city of Stockton recently earned the dubious distinction as #1 on Forbes magazine’s list of worst cities in America, based on demographic statistics like crime, the housing bust, unemployment, etc. Nearby Modesto was #5. Then again, this isn’t really news to people familiar with the area.

Back in the 1980’s when I was training with Angel Cabales in Stockton, I would sometimes bring training partners along to observe and participate in classes. Steve Van Manen, who later trained extensively with Sonny Umpad, was a frequent passenger on my early trips. As one who had worked on river boats and ridden the rails around the country, he had a keen eye for his environment, and I’ve never forgotten the first words he said on seeing Stockton: “This is a hard place to make a living.” The main source of economic activity in the area is agriculture, which means lots of intensive farm labor, along with the deep-sea port which ships produce around the country.

Now it isn’t like there is no upside to Stockton. There are many lovely tree-shaded parks, the University of the Pacific, and the north area is quite affluent, home to wealthy folk like Art Spanos, who owns the San Diego Chargers football team. On the other hand, the downtown area has long been depressed. The old Manilatown, the center of Filipino culture in the city, was largely demolished for renovation, turning what was once a vibrant neighborhood, albeit low income, into a largely soulless cluster of daytime office buildings.

On the other hand, Stockton remains a stronghold of FMA culture outside of the Philippines. There are probably more clubs in the area, relative to population, than anywhere else in the U.S.A., including the surrounding locales such as Lodi and Modesto, among them the Cabales Serrada Academy, Angel’s Disciples, Bahalana, Mata Sa Bagyo and other smaller, more private groups that train in back yards and parks.

Given the relatively low income of many residents and the high proportion of Filipinos and Hispanics, martial arts are deeply ingrained in local culture. Unlike many places where this is just another fitness option, in Stockton martial arts are central to many cultural activities and events, and participation is ingrained, passing from generation to generation within extended family lines. Further, with the inroads of gangs and drugs into poor working class neighborhoods, practice in martial arts isn’t just relegated to dojos or academies. It's about survival, with plenty of opportunity for those so inclined to accumulate “war stories” on the streets.

While the major martial art magazines may focus on what happens further south in the media center of Los Angeles, for those interested in some of the most realistic training outside of the Philippines, Stockton remains a cultural mecca. After all, the FMA evolved in tough environments, and so those early manongs who settled in this area for work were already acclimated to survival under duress. The art may have continued to migrate as the Filipino population spread out into major metropolitan areas, but out there in the hinterlands it remains close to its roots.

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