THROUGH THE FIRE: Still Moving Mountains

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

I used to hear in academia that historical events are usually written some 50 years later. My first thought was, “Yeah, after most of the eyewitnesses have passed on, their memories have glazed over, or they’ve lost their marbles.” But to be serious, it probably has more to do with the time it takes for researchers to look through documents of those times; locate, collect, and transcribe oral histories of those involved; and find a permanent home for archiving.

We are now seeing 50-year celebrations of the 1970s Asian American Movement. Locally the Japanese American National Museum’s “At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America” opened simultaneously with the Los Angeles book launch of the anthology “Mountain Movers: Student Activism & the Emergence of Asian American Studies.”

As “Mountain Movers” commemorates 50 years of Asian American studies at San Francisco State, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, a new red book has been born. While there have been a number of publications preceding this 50-year mark, it’s only now that individuals are coming forward to give their own narratives. Time gives distance to get over emotional issues that can cloud analytical perspectives, and urgency to express one’s thoughts before we leave this planet.

“Mountain Movers” reveals the power of memoir and details personal transformations of these selected mountain movers. The anthology contains nine oral histories and four historical essays. I will highlight some of these to give you an idea of the impact this book has on me as a former movement person, and hopefully on many others as we transition into complicated times.

Bea and Harvey Dong, owners of Eastwind Books of Berkeley, a cozy space where many book events take place, housing one of the best selections of Asian American and Pacific Islander publications, including a wide selection of children’s books.

“Mountain Movers” documents the original missions of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) strikes at San Francisco State (now SFSU) and UC Berkeley: educating Third World students to gain the skills needed to deal with problems in our non-white communities. Our communities had no social services, bad housing conditions, substandard schools, and an overwhelming lack of attention. This was a sharp turn from the 1960 California Master Plan to educate the best and brightest for jobs in U.S. corporations.

Movements at the grassroots level welcomed and supported the idea of ethnic studies developing a pipeline of educated community workers to help solve its problems. Ethnic studies was squarely based on the foundation of our ethnic communities. Malcolm Collier and Daniel Phil Gonzales describe members of the Asian Pacific organizations that were part of the original TWLF at SF State: “Members tended to identify as community people who were going to college, and not college students returning to the community.” This statement exemplifies the original impetus and interdependence of ethnic studies with its immediate ethnic communities.

Irene Dea Collier’s oral history reveals how the Chinese bilingual and educational rights movement got started in San Francisco with The Association of Chinese Teachers (TACT). Irene was instrumental in developing relevant bilingual curriculum materials for teachers, community groups, and school districts. She ends with: “The original purpose of ethnic studies for me was to serve as a conduit to serve the community and I hope that will be the case for the next 50 years.”

Jeff Mori’s story recounts how community projects in San Francisco Nihonmachi were peopled by SF State students like himself. The Japanese Community Youth Council, Kimochi, Japanese Community Services, and Nihonmachi Legal Outreach grew as the ranks of students/ex-students were motivated to “Serve the People.”

Jeff recalls: “Japantown’s Nihonmachi Street Fair was formed out of Steve Nakajo’s SF State class in 1974. One of his students gave him an idea about how we should have an intergenerational fair in Japantown, and that’s where it started, as a class project of Asian American Studies.” The Street Fair is now in its 46th year — a two-day event drawing close to 30,000 people.

Ling-chi Wang’s historical essay on Asian American and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley gives us a critical analysis of how the university has patiently found ways to mainstream ethnic studies into academia. I can especially appreciate this after witnessing the changes that UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center went through since 1969. The demands for faculty of color to teach ethnic studies is one pivotal point where academic qualifications do not necessarily entail knowledge of the ever-changing ethnic communities. After all, getting a Ph.D itself necessitates time away from the frontlines of community issues.

In Wang’s words: “Struggling for incremental progress, and fighting for its integrity and survival, is the story of Ethnic Studies. It would be wrong to proclaim the TWLF mission accomplished. …the vision and promise remain elusive and the future of Ethnic Studies uncertain still.”

He states the two major gains at UC Berkeley: the first Ph.D program in Ethnic Studies (1985); and a campus-wide Ethnic Studies breadth requirement for all undergraduates (1989). Wang describes: “By far it [the requirement]has been one of the most profound curricular innovations in American higher education and an enduring contribution ES [ethnic studies]can be proud of.”

Harvey Dong’s oral history covers his transformation from a ROTC cadet in 1966 to joining the Stop the Draft Week in 1967. He explains: “One time at rifle practice, a cadet hit that bullseye and stated with glee, ‘I just shot a gook.’” Harvey became a member of the newly formed Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) initiated by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, and from there got involved in the TWLF strike at UC Berkeley for a Third World College.

Through his work in SF Chinatown for Self-help for the Elderly, they created the Asian Studies Field Outpost (AFSO) next door to the International Hotel. As he and his wife Bea were solidly involved in community and union organizing, they were met with a major setback in 1981. Bea was shot in the neck by a mentally unstable woman — paralyzed from the neck down, permanently resigned to life in a wheelchair. Despite the heart-rending situation, their unwavering politics were able to manifest in the establishment of Eastwind Books of Berkeley (since 1982) — one of the few AAPI bookstores whose owners came from the 1970s movements. (www.asiabookcenter.com)

Lillian Fabros takes us from her farmworker background to becoming a founding member of AAPA at UC Berkeley. During her early years working against Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law, she was victim to rumors being spread that she was an informant for the Marcos regime. This tactic was used to disrupt the Black Panther Party — sowing seeds of mistrust by creating vicious rumors about people.

Instead of “going silently into the night,” Lillian decided: “I wasn’t going to be chased out or voluntarily leave — I wanted to hold on and stand fast. The cause surpassed my individual feelings.”

Jean-Paul R. deGuzman’s historical essay and Amy Uyematsu and Casimiro Tolentino’s oral histories fill us in on some of the little known beginnings of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. The last section of “Mountain Movers” highlights three young women, Holly Raña Lim, Nkauj Iab Yang, and Preeti Sharma, whose life directions were directly shaped by ethnic studies.

I hope I have stirred up your interest in “Mountain Movers.” As an anthology, it is an easy read. Congrats to the editors — Russell Jeung, Karen Umemoto, Harvey Dong, Eric Mar, Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani, and Arnold Pan — and to all the contributors. I encourage you to buy your copies from Eastwind Books of Berkeley, one independent bookstore struggling for survival in these challenging times. Of course, you can also get your copies from my old haunt, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press. (www.aasc.ucla.edu/aascpress/mm/)

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is the retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press. She invites your comments at uyemats[email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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