When the owners of San Francisco’s International Hotel decided to tear down the building and evict the tenants in 1968, a grassroots movement emerged to save the hotel. The fight raged in the courts and on the streets of Manilatown for a decade and climaxed with riot police storming the hotel, forcibly removing nearly all the elderly Filipino and Chinese pensioners.
“The story is still mostly buried. It’s still pigeonholed,” says Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Estella Habal, with an expression that’s both sad and resolute. “I would like it to go out much broader, and be a human story and not just an Asian American story.”
Habal, whose research on the protest is presented in her book San Francisco’s International Hotel, played a part in one of the movements that defined the Bay Area in the revolutionary 1960s and 70s. And she’s carried that determined, fighting spirit through her work teaching Asian American studies at San Jose State for the past 13 years.
For the daughter of Filipino immigrants, the road to professorship was a difficult one. She credits teachers at San Francisco State and fellow activists with encouraging her to look past the culturally imposed limits of ethnicity, gender and class.
“In college I heard, ‘You look like a good student who could go farther.’ I’d never heard anything like that before,” she says. “When you’re from a working-class background and you don’t even have books in your house, you’re coming from a far off place.”
After a failed marriage, and with two kids in tow, Habal left Southern California in 1971, and like countless others before her, went to San Francisco to reinvent herself. “When I arrived I went immediately to the International Hotel, which was a Mecca for Filipino activist youths throughout the West Coast.”
Reflecting on her hard-won success, she says, “I could say that my activism and persistence and immigrant values are what got me here.”
The struggle to save the International Hotel was a defining time in Habal’s life, and in the life of the Bay Area. It was David versus Goliath. It was rich versus poor. Right versus wrong.
It was where Habal learned to be a fighter.
Get involved at: manilatown.org.