While listening to President Obama’s somber but inspiring inaugural address, I returned to a painful moment in my life.
Five years ago, someone had found my father’s unconscious body by the side of a desert highway. Along the short stretch lay his overturned van surrounded by shattered glass and scattered fruits and vegetables. At the hospital, I felt overwhelmed seeing my broken father but the struggle with him and being regarded as a stranger took it to another level.
Not recognizing me, he had pushed against me and cried for his mother as I held him down so he would not hurt himself and pull out the tubes sustaining his life. His skull fractured with internal bleeding in his head sent him into violent fits and temporarily erased his memories of us. I should not have been in this position—a consequence of a shortage of nurses on the floor.
Even as my father miraculously survived and continues to heal to this day, this feeling of struggling with a loved one who saw me as a stranger stayed with me and struck a familiar theme throughout most of my life.
For my generation, we grew up during the Age of Reagan. We learned to chant the mantra of “personal responsibility” and “small government.” Most of us were nurtured on this belief that we alone as a single individual can take care of ourselves. Reagan’s 1976 tale of “The Modern Little Red Hen,” where the enterprising spirit of the hen is destroyed when he must share the bread born from his hard labor with the other “ungrateful and lazy” farm animals, was our bedtime story as children.
The depth of this philosophy went beyond policy and penetrated how we saw ourselves and others—a new psychology for a new political age. As my parents had to work harder and longer to support my brother and me and we saw them less, the more I unconsciously internalized this cynicism and came to emotionally only rely on myself.
At the 2009 U.S. Presidential Inauguration, President Obama declared the end of the Reagan Era when he explained that “the world has changed and we must change with it” and called on all of us to grow up and bear the responsibility of “remaking the nation.” He observed that “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”
President Obama substituted Reagan’s cynical story of the “Modern Little Red Hen” with the epic history of those who served our nation from the “fallen heroes who lie in Arlington ” to the soldiers in the deserts today:
“We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
“Personal Responsibility” in this new period means that I serve my community and become a better father, husband and son. Changing society and changing ourselves go hand-in-hand.
As an Asian American Pacific Islander, for me, this new period means displacing 20th Century identity politics with a 21st Century recognition that we are part of a multi-racial majority. It means expanding the fight for benefits denied to Pilipino World War II veterans to wider efforts to secure fairness and justice for all those who serve our nation and humanity. We just don’t fight to increase our numbers in higher education but strive for education for all, regardless of race and ethnicity and income level. It means that we must stop falling over ourselves for a seat at the table for the crumbs left behind and instead proactively lead and join multi-racial coalitions on the issues that affect all people such as healthcare access.
The presidential inauguration of Obama embodies the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, not because Obama is African American, but that he reminds us that we remain prisoners as individuals or specific communities unless all of us are free.
As Obama takes his place in the White House, it is time we come out of isolation formed over a generation. No one should ever have to experience struggling alone with a broken loved one again.
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.