Digital Delta Project combines art, history, technology to preserve community’s legacy

history students examine artifacts
history students examine artifacts
History major Hannah Tvergyak and Social Sciences major Ronnie Sanchez examine artifacts at the Little Manila Center in downtown Stockton.

A research project at University of the Pacific makes history real for students by combining digital technology, the arts and sciences to build a virtual model of a Stockton community that was destroyed nearly 50 years ago in the name of progress.

“We’re trying to rewrite the narrative of what it was like back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” said history major Hannah Tvergyak ’18, one of the student researchers. “So, if people can really learn and get more of an understanding of what it was like for a different cultural group living in America, I think that would be a really interesting story.”

Tvergyak and five fellow Pacific students from various disciplines are part of the first Digital Delta Incubator fellowship, a project that will document and preserve the history of communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The first will focus on Stockton’s Little Manila Filipino community that was mostly torn down to make way for the Crosstown Freeway connecting Interstate 5 and state Highway 99.

The project was initially funded by a $100,000 Pacific Strategic Educational Excellence Development grant in May 2016. That money helped pay to hire digital curator Joshua Salyers, who is a full-time, permanent employee thanks to the investment of the University Library. It also underwrote the cost of the five-week summer fellowship for four students while additional funding from the University Library paid for two more students.

The project’s goal is to spotlight under-documented populations in the Delta, especially in Stockton, Sacramento and San Francisco, where the university has its three campuses.

“I think fundamentally we’re giving students a chance to answer the question, ‘What is history for?’ in a really profound way,” said Edie Sparks, chair of the Department of History.

Filipino history in California

Ronnie Sanchez talks with former Little Manila residents Virginia Velez Catanio and Minnie Liwanag
Social science student Ronnie Sanchez talks with former Little Manila residents Virginia Velez Catanio and Minnie Liwanag for the Digital Delta project.

The Filipino community in northern California has a long, deep and sometimes tragic history.  Immigrants came to work the agricultural fields to send money to families left behind in the Philippines. By World War II, the six-block neighborhood south of Main Street known as Little Manila was home to the largest population of Filipinos outside the Philippines. Starting in the 1950s, however, parts of the Asian neighborhoods near downtown were razed for redevelopment projects.

In 1968, crews began tearing down Little Manila businesses and apartment buildings to make way for the Crosstown Freeway. By 1970, the Filipino population had dropped to 5,000 from 15,000 just a quarter century before. Many residents scattered to the Bay Area and Sacramento.

“There are only three buildings remaining there,” said Kyle Sabbatino ’18, project fellow majoring in graphic design. “It’s sad because they just built the highway right over it.”

Since mid-May, students have been reading about the history of Little Manila, visiting the Little Manila Center in downtown Stockton and interviewing people who used to live in Little Manila. They are using the information and recordings to virtually recreate the community in a video game that K-12 teachers can later use to teach Filipino history in the classroom. Players will be able to navigate through the digital version of the neighborhood and encounter characters that describe various landmarks and customs.

Building career skills

A range of skills was needed to create the game, so the student group included not only a computer science student and students from the history department, but two art majors and a student from the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences.

Sarah Kuo ’17, from the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences created a geographic information system map, which provides the location of each building that made up Little Manila. There is also an overlay and users can move a slider across the screen to reveal the freeway that is there now to compare it to the buildings that were destroyed.

“You can made correlations like, ‘Wow, there were a lot of hotels’ or ‘This place was really densely populated,’” Kuo said.

Computer science major Jamie Culilap ’19 felt a special connection to the project. She’s of Filipino descent and even got her father involved in the project. He provides the voice for one of the game’s characters and translated his lines into Tagalog.

“Since I’m culturally related to it, it’s a nice way to contribute something to my heritage,” Culilap said.

Part of the project’s purpose was to help students build skills that will help them after they graduate. They say they’re pleased to have had a chance to work on a project as a team with people from other disciplines. The experience helps liberal arts students develop digital literacy and technical skills, and computer science students gain experience applying technology to real-world projects. The students also get to do hands-on research with professors outside the classroom and serve the community in a way that is deeply meaningful to Stockton.

“What really drew me to the project is that we have these communities that have been underrepresented, and they have true cultural value,” history student Ronnie Sanchez ’19 said. “It’s been a big part of the university’s (mission) to help develop these cultures and be sure that they’re sustained.”

Danielle Thomasson ’19, a graphic design major who quickly became proficient in 3D modeling programs, also learned about her own community.

“I learned so much with this project, not only about myself and 3D software, but also about Stockton and its history,” Thomasson said.

At the end of the fellowship, there will still be work to do. Salyers will add the finishing touches to the game. It will then become part of the history department’s curriculum.

Education tool

Another goal is for the site to be useful for teachers as a classroom tool when they teach the region’s history in Delta area schools. The Little Manila Project will become part of the University Library’s collection so other students will be able to access the interviews and information for their own research. Future Digital Delta projects will focus on other communities in the Delta.

This is a particular area of interest for Dan Cliburn, a professor of computer science who also serves as a faculty mentor on the project and whose current research focuses on using virtual environments to enhance learning.

“This whole project is conceptualized as the gift that keeps on giving,” Sparks said. “There’s so much history to document.”

Students will unveil the video game at a reception in the Library’s Community Room at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, June 15. Visit our event page for more information

You can download the game from the university’s Scholarly Commons site.


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