The passing of leading thinkers in the ethnic studies canon — Ron Takaki, Mark Him Lai, Richard Aoki, and the poet Al Robles — in the last few months challenges us to complete unfinished tasks.
During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, whenever anyone would ask what am I, I always responded “human.” I didn’t identify as “Pilipino” or even as a “person of color.” Such terms struck me as separatist and seemed to deny any sense of individuality. Asian American and Pacific Islander campus activists would become infuriated with me and then dismiss me as a “banana” —”yellow” on the outside and “white” on the inside. Until, one day, I found myself swept into the struggles for ethnic studies.
At the time, I met Bong Vergara, one of the student leaders who led the drive for Pilipino Studies and Tagalog language classes at UCLA. Unlike many of the student activists I encountered, he didn’t lecture me but shared his personal stories. When I became more open-minded, I listened to him sing acapello the Pilipino song “Sampaguita” at an evening event. Afterwards, I hummed its melody to myself as I drove home. When I got to my bedroom, I cried without a sound the entire night.
It took me over twenty years to finally confront many memories I had hid away. I remembered being seven years old and the other kids (all white) saying I look Chinese and singing “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these” as they pushed the outside corners of their eyes up. At the same time, I remembered wanting to look like them. I remembered at age twelve, looking at the mirror pinching my nose and sliding my glasses down in order to narrow it, hoping it would be less flat and more straight like the many whites in class I knew. I remembered being embarrassed by the way my parents ate their food with their fingers and always served rice with every meal. I remembered avoiding being around the few other Asians in class so that people wouldn’t make comments that we look good together or ask if we are related. I remembered wanting to date mostly white women in order to prove my personal worth and that I am not ugly. I remembered denying me in the name of “individualism” when I was only cutting myself away from a larger family that I didn’t want to see… because they looked like me.
Like the rhythm in the song Bong sang, his embrace of his ethnic identity allowed melody to leap forward and dance. For the longest time, I avoided the dance floor.
Scholars and artists like Ron Takaki, Mark Him Lai, Richard Aoki, and Al Robles created the tools to help me understand my marginalized experiences. Takaki named the beast which ate away at those memories—the “Master Narrative,” which narrowed US history to the efforts of one racial group. He introduced us to the other and forgotten makers of history who looked like me—the Manong Generation who co-founded the United Farm Workers union, the Chinese immigrant workers who helped build the transcontinental railroads, the Japanese American internees who challenged the violation of their constitutional rights, and many others. To paraphrase Takaki, we must tell our stories and in our re-telling we create a shared community of memory.
More importantly, individuals like Takaki, Lai, Aoki, and Robles, not only uncovered the dignity and contributions of people of color in this country but they redefined the mission of education as a vehicle for social change, not a simple mechanism to mainstream us into the economy. We had to both read their scholarship and act on it. Eventually, I went from carrying picket signs protesting the exploitation of Asian immigrant garment workers to joining a civil disobedience with mistreated Latino/a janitors in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.
With the election of Obama as president, Sonia Sontemayor becoming a serious contender for the US Supreme Court, and even the identification by mainstream news of Laura Ling and Euna Lee as “American” journalists, Multiculturalism, which has been heavily associated with these intellectuals, seems to have reached its zeitgeist. But at its core, it was never just about race but power and our right to determine our own lives. Ron Takaki often quoted Langston Hughes’ line “Let America be America, where equality is in the air we breathe.” Their passing has left the torch in our hands to take the race to the next level until we can all breathe deeply and long.
Originally published by the Asian American Action Fund.
John Delloro is the Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, LACCD and currently sits on the Legal Advisory Board of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) and the Board of Directors of the PWC. He was one of the co-founders of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California (PWC) and served as the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). For the past decade, he also worked as a regional manager/organizer for SEIU 1000, Union of California State Workers, a staff director/organizer for SEIU 399, the Healthcare Workers Union, and an organizer for AFSCME International and HERE 226, the hotel workers union in Las Vegas.