My Family’s History — Why I am an Asian American advocate

By Heather Skrabak, Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO) Policy Analyst, a National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) member

The following was originally published in an AAPCHO newsletter. Today, Feb. 19, is the Day of Remembrance — a day marking the anniversary of when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (E.O. 9066), requiring the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

I am an Asian American advocate because of my grandmother. When you are fourth generation, information about the past comes out slowly over many years. It wasn’t until my middle school covered World War II did we begin to discuss my grandparents’ experiences in the internment camps. It wasn’t until after my grandma passed away that we found out that our family had initially moved from Japan to Mexico to work on farms, and had moved to the United States sometime after, without papers. She remained undocumented her whole life.

Recently, I found out that my grandma kept a scrapbook of articles during and after the war. The scrapbook opens onto a copy of the Gila News-Courier, a newspaper that the internees created in the Gila River internment camp. It continues with articles discussing and debating the internment — what to do with the “Japs” and where they should go after. There are anecdotal accounts of Japanese Americans that have married into white American society, soldiers of Japanese background, and protestors crying for the Japanese Americans to be “sent back”.

We’ve seen these waves of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear in the news recently and AAPCHO has spoken out against such remarks as damaging to the community. I was shocked by how similar the words are, 50 years later. After all of this, we should know better. As a country we should know that classifying and vilifying an entire racial/ethnic/religious group is un-American. Even reading through my grandma’s scrapbook from over 50 years ago, I felt my blood boil.

Back off. That’s my family.

It occurs to me that keeping this scrapbook was my grandma’s form of advocacy. She was a quiet person and would never call herself an advocate. And yet, I have an image of her, after cooking a large meal, wiping down the kitchen table and sitting down with the newspaper of the day. I can see her calmly and precisely cutting the chosen article from the rest of the paper and pasting the edges. I can see her setting something heavy on the scrapbook to make sure the paste set, and checking it later to make sure it was clear and readable.

She was voiceless is so many ways: in relative poverty, as an internment camp survivor and an undocumented American. But this calm and deliberate record of a controversial history tells me she wanted it to be noted. We have lived through this. And we will not forget your words.

When I think about advocacy, I think about my grandmother pasting articles into her scrapbook. To me, she represents so many members of our community who are effectively voiceless to the injustices going on around them. When we, as AAPCHO, as individual clinics, or as individuals speak up on an issue, it is to give voice to those in our community who remain voiceless and powerless. We speak up to defend their interests and strive to empower their voice. I’m proud to be an Asian American advocate — I’m happy to work so our issues will not be forgotten and we can continue to stand up for justice, and I invite others to join and continue this work with me.

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