Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Kickoff
Asian Media Access maintained a weeklong exhibit, WATER (the Way Asians Traveled Experienced Remembered), as a way to illustrate the immigrant experience and its contribution to Minnesota’s Asian culture, legacy and accomplishments.
ST. PAUL (May 3, 2010) – The State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans held its annual Asian Pacific Heritage Month kickoff celebration at the State Capitol, drawing community leaders and organizations representing many ethnic groups for a Capitol Rotunda Program.
Ilean Her, executive director, CAPM, explained the history of Asian Pacific Heritage Month as a term that encompasses 42 ethnic APIA groups present in Minnesota alone. She said that it took a 20-year effort before a bill passed Congress in 1978 and signed by President Jimmy Carter. The two-week commemoration was extended to the entire Month of May in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.
Her said that May was chosen as a month with significant dates to many ethnic APIA groups, but most significantly it marked the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the track laborers were Chinese immigrants and many suffered discrimination and hardship, lost their lives or faced exclusion when it was completed.
Her said the great diversity within the APIA community is a strength – but that it also means that people need to work harder to get to know one another better.
“This is Heritage Month and we are going to tell people about it; we are going to celebrate it; and we are going to try to own it as our month,” said Her.
She explained the CAPM mission to work on policy issues and to serve as an advisory board to the Legislature and the Governor. It is also an advocate for APIA issues, offering legislative or outside resources, and also to serve as a bridge organization for the APIA community to other communities.
U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison (MN-5) began by thanking Asian American veterans. Then he thanked the business sector for helping to create jobs, opportunities and inventions that are making the world better. He thanked the athletes and then he thanked the social workers for helping refugees and other people that are in dire straits and need someone to care.
Then Ellison reflected on the thankless sacrifices that Asian Americans have made for this country since it was founded – while others just arriving are giving as much to meet their own unique challenges with adjusting to a new life, creating a home for their families and facing immigration issues trying to reunify with their relatives.
He said that to make Heritage Month more meaningful that people of all backgrounds should share in this appreciation of the APIA contribution – in the interest of appreciating one another to become a better country.
“You can’t really understand America without understanding the contributions of Asian Americans,” said Ellison.
On the national level, Ellison said he is working to eliminate barriers to fair housing by advocating for a culturally specific housing council to help new Americans. He said it will help prevent fraud and other trouble in part related to language and culture barriers. He said immigration is the biggest issue in his district and that his priority is a rationale and fair immigration system.
Jean Lee was present with an exhibit on Asian Pacific American Housing Consortium, designed to support APA organizations in building capacity in underserved areas of housing, community and economic development including business, commerce, industry, jobs, finance, capital investment, consumer protection and public policy.
“It was great that Congressman Keith Ellison supports the issues raised in a request to his office, Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s office, Sen. Klobuchar’s office, and Sen. Franken’s office to help fund,” said Lee.
In the Keynote Address, Hennepin County Judge Tony N. Leung said that the Asian American experience is characterized historically by U.S. economic and military values in which some APIA group filled an initial need but that as times changed there were direct or indirect attempts to legally exclude these very people that came to contribute to America.
Leung spoke of the Chinese experience but said it serves as a constructive analogy to many groups with a similar initial welcome to America only to later experience a more restrictive environment. Whether is was the need to build a railroad, develop the agricultural industry or some other service or industry – once the times turned hard then a “scapegoatism” effect followed, he said.
Leung described Exclusion Era laws, where Chinese men were allowed to remain but that by barring women from China for decades they prevented families from settling in a purposeful event to “drive Chinese numbers down,” and at the same time allow other Asian groups in to satisfy some other need to help develop the economic structure of the nation.
“The immigration laws are so vital in how and what happens in the lives of people here,” said Leung.
Asian scapegoating is persistent in American history and led to the Los Angeles riots of 1871, the Rock Springs massacre of 1885 and others. Leung said that scapegoating is what led to those disasters and more recently, with the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, at the hands of autoworkers who got away with the crime. They scapegoated Chin for unemployment, the failing auto industry, and the War in Southeast Asia.
Leung said the concern that scapegoating will return is always simmering under the surface as American attitudes change with distorted news on foreign trade and the fears of rising power of other nations. He said other communities share these fears and that this is a common struggle.
“We don’t have to be blind (to external threats and domestic concerns) but we should be cognizant of history, and to put all of this into perspective as we move forward,” he added.
Leung concluded by noting that Heritage Month is a time to solidify the pan Asian Pacific community by understanding their the similar experience and shared suffering involved in becoming Americans. He said that to understand the history of where we came from because is important – because it is a possible predictor of the future.
“Unless we are vigilant and think about what we are doing now, today…this is a reminder to all of us to ensure equality and fairness and access to the American dream,” he added.
David Mura, a Sansei Japanese American raised in Chicago and a Minnesotan since the 1970s, talked about the many identities that Asian Americans have – a term he said implies a bicultural experience that in some way combines with American culture and history.
He added that the term implies a way that APIA look at themselves, and how they perceive the way others feel about them.
Mura said he believes in liberty, democracy and the constitution – and the concept of an America where people from around the globe come to become Americans – something he said people must not forget.
In a time of draconian laws and revisionist histories, he said people now try to say that race had no baring on the internment of Japanese Americans. Mura quoted from documents on the internment to illustrate that leaders of the time that oversaw the incarceration of more than one hundred thousand American born Japanese believed they were people not capable of being American citizens.
“We have to remember this history,” said Mura, who recited poems of a Japanese American who was incarcerated as an enemy alien even before the internment and separated from his family for several years – for just being a community leader.
The Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League presented a display on the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service during World War II. This language school sought Nisei for the war effort, even after many of them had already tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor but were denied because of their ethnicity.
The internment order made it impossible for Japanese Americans to attend The Presidio at San Francisco, and so they moved the school to Minnesota, first at Camp Savage and then to Fort Snelling. They MIS students received accelerated training as interrogators, translators, and interpreters. Military commanders later wrote that the MIS graduates may have shortened the Pacific War by up to two years.
Many of the Japanese Americans now living in Minnesota, trace their roots to a relative who was stationed here during WWII. More than 6,000 Nisei came through the Twin Cities to attend the MIS Language School, or were soldiers from Hawai’i and the mainland that filled the ranks of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Many of the 100/442 fought beyond what was expected of them, Mura said, because they wanted to prove to America that it had made a mistake by interning them and their families. They became the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history.
The 1940 census showed 51 ethnic Japanese lived in Minnesota. In 1950 that number grew to several thousand. Returning MIS soldiers and their families thought the state was welcoming or had nothing to return to out West.
“The Japanese American soldiers who served in the MIS played a vital role during World War II, and we are pleased that their contributions are being recognized by the Department of Education as an important part of Minnesota History,” said Sally Sudo, chair of the TC JACL Education Committee.
JACL assists teachers with a curriculum guide that can be downloaded at www.twincitiesjacl.org.
David Mura said that even though his family has been in America for more than a century, he still sometimes feels that he is not recognized as an American. More than 60 years after the internment and more than 20 years after an apology and reparations, he now tries to instill this history in his own children that benefit from an increasingly multicultural state and country.
This view was lacking in the mainstream society of Mura’s youth, and still is to some extent today. As a young man, Mura said he turned to the Black writers to learn about the history of race in America and began to see how to look at identity through a racial lens.
Other speakers included Sen. John Marty, Phanat Vang of the Asian Media Access APA CommNet project, along with David Zander, Phuoc Thi-Minh Tran and Eh Taw Dwe all presented stories as members of the Asian Storytellers Alliance.