Filming for the Social Good: Documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña
Watching Renee Tajima-Peña drive cross-country in search of Asian American identity sparks longing for an answer. It's the 20th anniversary of her documentary My America and Asian American identity continues to be complex and multitudinous. An Academy Award nominee, Renee's projects are in line with the Asian American activist movement; she unites art, academia, and activism. We talked with her about making creative spaces accessible to all people at Visual Communications, an Asian American media empowerment organization. Renee explained the importance of disaggregating data, student activism, and taking collective action to fight for social change.
By Natalie Mark
Photos by Riki Robinson
GR: What is your America?
Renee Tajima-Peña: When I was growing up, there were so few Asian Americans, probably like a million across the country. Compared to now, you can imagine, we’re really sparse. My dad used to travel, so he’d put us all in one of those huge sedans, a Buick LeSabre, and we’d go across the country, across Route 66. We would never see an Asian. If we saw an Asian, it was like the second coming of Christ. One time we were driving in the Appalachians and this Asian woman up in the hills of Kentucky walks out of this store. We stopped the car and stared at her. Everybody still talks about that one sighting. It was as if a martian landed.
We were completely marginalized because of the politics of race. My uncle and my cousins desegregated a neighborhood in Pasadena. I grew up in Chicago, we first lived in the city and then moved to the suburbs. My family and two other Asian families desegregated that suburb. Racism and the legal and cultural marginality of Asian Americans was going on in my lifetime. I mean, I’m old but not ancient. We were on the outs, and I always looked at myself as being an outsider or a foreigner: "This is somebody else’s country, obviously somebody else owns it, and I’m just visiting and traveling through it."
But I think a lot changed in the 1990s. First, there were so many of us all of a sudden. There was a very diverse community of Asian Americans. Second, the Asian American movement had matured to the point where we had Asian American studies, legal organizations, mass community grassroots organizations, and the arts and culture. We were becoming very strong. I started to read a lot of Asian American intellectuals and writers, and they were talking about the centrality of Asians to the American Project. They were uncovering histories I had no idea about, like Asian Americans being central to major Supreme Court decisions since the 1800s, guaranteeing due process and basic rights to all Americans, and Asian American centrality in the labor movements. So to summarize, Asian Americans were not at the margins but always at the center, sometimes at the center by resisting but that’s how the place America was made. That was the lightbulb going off over my head and I started to think of things in a much different way. That’s why I called the film My America, it’s kind of a stupid title, but it really represented that change, that transformation for me.
GR: My America actually came out 20 years ago. How would you compare the My America you created to what’s going on today?
RTP: In the film there were two Filipina sisters, the Burtanog sisters, who had been in New Orleans for eight generations. Who knew Filipinos came so early through Spanish colonialism and diaspora? It’s been going on for centuries. Those sisters were in Louisiana, and they were triangulated in the racial structure of the deep south between Whites, African Americans, and Asians. In a place like Louisiana, the Filipinos were considered honorary Whites, sort of like in South Africa. Across the state line in Mississippi, they were subjected to educational segregation and anti miscegenation laws, so they were considered like Blacks. It was interesting how the Burtanogs— who grew up in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s— navigated that triangulation of race. I’ve kept up with Rhonda, one of the daughters. The family had settled in St. Bernard Parish, which is right outside of New Orleans. It was submerged during Hurricane Katrina and the whole family had to stay in FEMA housing, and for a time I think in Mississippi. But she and other people in the family were able to retain a lot of these great photos they had of the Filipino community in the French Quarter, Mardi Gras celebrations, and the Filipino social club. The generation of Burtanogs I had filmed has passed on. But Rhonda saved their stories and she is such an amazing activist, standing up for racial justice in a place where that’s not a popular thing to do. You can see the evolution of these Asian American families in really amazing ways. I also visited Mississippi and Arkansas with Bill and Yuri Kochiyama.
GR: I love that scene in the movie. They’re so cute.
RTP: Yeah! People don’t realize, they were badass activists, but Yuri was hilarious. She had six kids, she and Bill would cook for everybody, they were completely family-oriented people. I wrote a tribute to Yuri for the Amerasia Journal and I called it “The Politics of Love” because that’s what was at the root of Yuri’s fight for social justice. Man, Yuri was a trip. They were funny, they were like those romance movie couples. They bickered but they were so in love. Bill just adored Yuri. She’s a very quirky person and he was always very tolerant of her quirks.
She had this thing with Teddy bears. She loved Teddy bears. If you went to their apartment, I think it was on 126th Street, it was filled with Teddy bears. She knew all these famous activists and musicians and she’d name bears after them. When were in Hattiesburg, Mississippi shooting, I remember we went to a Teddy bear store, which was like heaven for Yuri. At one point I could tell she was getting really agitated and unhappy, and I said, “Yuri what’s wrong?” She said that she felt the store was really marginalizing the black and brown bears because they were dressing all the white bears in really nice costumes and putting the bears of color off to the side. She was really upset!
Another time, we were both flying back to New York from L.A. on different flights. No matter what age, Yuri would get herself home from the airport, J.F.K or LaGuardia, on public transportation with all her bags and everything. I knew that so I said, “Let me help. I’ll take some of your bags, I’ll just bring them to your house later.” She said, “Okay, can you take my bears?” She traveled with these five bears she really loved. I said, “Sure, I’ll take the bears. That’s no problem, I can put them in the suitcase or something.” But then she said, “You have to take a carry-on because they can’t go in luggage. It’s too cold down there.” I said, “Really?” She goes, “Oh, serious as a heart-attack.” I said, “Okay…” I never told her, but I put them in luggage. You can’t even fit it in overhead! She just loved these Teddy bears. Bill also gave her a Care-Bear she really adored. But everybody knows her for her rock solid activism.
GR: How did you start making documentaries and what drove you to become a filmmaker?
RTP: When I grew up, the idea of being an Asian American filmmaker was like the idea of me being an NFL linebacker. Nobody did it, you didn’t even think about it. There was a Japanese American community center in Pasadena where I grew up. When I was in high school I went to an event and these two really young filmmakers, Bob Nakamura and Eddie Wong were showing their films, Wong Sing Saang and Manzanar. I was like, “This is amazing! This is my story and it’s on film!” I had never seen anything like that. I was growing up with Hop Sing and Bonanza, Sayonara, all this yellow-face, like Shirley MacLaine playing Asians, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You never saw authentic Asian American stories. I think that planted a seed, somewhere but I did not say, “Now I want to be a filmmaker!”
I was a student activist, and I went to school with the intent to be a civil rights lawyer. But then in college, I went out with some guys who were at Harvard Law school and I said, “Oh, I don’t think I want to be around these kinds of people for my whole career.” They call the law school “1L” at Harvard. There’s this old movie about the experience of 1Ls where they get humiliated. They get taught to be very arrogant and adversary, and they read all the time. I have attention deficit disorder so I can’t really sit and read a long time, so I said, “This is not for me.”] But at the time, people were starting to use video cameras. The School of Public Health had all this equipment they weren’t using. Somebody bought it and it just sat there. A group of activist students of color got our hands on it and we started to make these silly, political videos. We were really serious at the time. Then, I convinced Matina Horner, the President of Radcliffe College at the time, to give me $7000 to go to Grenada and film. Grenada had just gone through this bloodless revolution, these socialist revolutionaries had overthrown the dictator, Eric Gairy. It was their first anniversary and I went down there with a friend and filmed the first anniversary. We talked to the people there. We were even able to talk to the Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and all the people in the top echelons of the government, who a few years later, were either killed or imprisoned when Reagan invaded Grenada. That was my first experience with actually making an independent documentary on my own.
GR: Since your films represent the history and memories of marginalized communities, how do you navigate representing these communities in the context of White supremacy?
RTP: The two things that I would say drive my filmmaking is one, recording the voices. People say they’re “giving a voice to” people but I’m not giving anybody anything because people have a voice. It’s just not always recorded and put on screen. I can do that. But two, Asian American independent filmmaking is a filmmaking of resistance. We resist White supremacy by the very nature of our existing. Those are the stories we tell. We tell alternative stories that break through White supremacy, stories that center our own lives, and center our own role within this world, this city, and nation. That is an attack on White supremacy. We attack cultural stereotypes that keep us in a box, from moving forward, and from getting the jobs we should get, the homes we should be able to live in, and the schools we should be able to go to.
GR: Documentaries are a form of storytelling, but I think your films are taken more seriously than adaptations that have a more Blockbuster feel to them. How can we tell stories without glamorizing, romanticizing, or glorifying the past?
RTP: The trend has been that documentaries follow a lot of the same storytelling strategies as fiction films. In a good way, documentaries mythologize the subject. If you make a film about Justice for Janitors, then you put this person’s life on screen and they become larger than life as they should be. All art is creating these myths that tell us something about real life. But that’s different from glamorizing or sensationalizing. The risk with documentaries is doing the same thing. If you look at the convention to the Western narrative, it’s character driven, looking at this one person. It used to look at the “great White man,” but now it’s maybe looking at the "one Woman of Color" or whatever. It’s still looking at one person. But social change has always happened collectively. It’s never happened because one person was so great and convincing and brilliant that the world moved. It’s people.
If you take the story I told at the Asian American Comic Con, the mythology of Rosa Parks is, “Here is this ordinary woman who stepped into greatness because she refused to sit at the back of the bus. She took all these consequences in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.” Rosa Parks was a long time activist, and there was this whole strategy in the Civil Rights Movement to have people refuse to sit in the back of the bus as a form of civil disobedience, to be arrested, and make that statement. She was one of many. She was a part of a strategy, she was an activist, it was a collective position. The narrative of storytelling and the press or on TV or in film, she becomes this single character who moved mountains with this single action. In a way, that’s great, it’s inspiring, but it’s also not how social change happens.
It’s very difficult to make a film about more than one character. We’re so accustomed to this convention of following the hero, the single character. There are a lot of aspects to the way you approach film where as an artist you have to find ways of telling stories for an audience who are accustomed to those conventions. I’m accustomed to those conventions because I grew up with those kinds of movies, I like those kinds of stories. But we have to move the dial and find ways of telling stories that reflect a different consciousness, a different way of thinking.
GR: What’s an example of a documentary or a movie that uses that collective movement instead of a heroic character?
RTP: That’s a good question. I mean, my last film No Más Bebés was a group and that was the structural flaw of the film. I think it was hard for people to follow all these characters.
GR: Because they’re engrained in that singular narrative?
RTP: Because there were a lot of characters to keep track of. Throughout my filmmaker career I’ve tried to do that. Who Killed Vincent Chin? was not only about one character. Certain characters rise to the top. People will remember Helen Zia or Lily Chin, but it really was about many more people than that. Again, people would say that was the structural flaw of the film because there were so many people to keep track of. I made a film called Calavera Highway about my husband’s family and there were six brothers and their mother. I tried to keep it down to two or three brothers mostly, but still, if it was just about one it would have been easier for people to digest. I can think of those films because I happen to have made them.
GR: TV shows do it.
RTP: Right, and then you follow one story. When I made Who Killed Vincent Chin? the one TV show I thought of was Hill Street Blues. That was one of the original TV shows where they had that pattern with multiple characters, you shift from one story to another, and the characters return two or three times within the hour. Actually, those fiction strategies, whether in novels, plays, episodic TV, movies, or whatever are very useful for me in terms of finding ways of telling a story that’s not just this single character driven story. Not that I don’t like single character movies. I love them so I can think of a lot of films that have moved and changed me. I don’t want to quote Mao, but “Let a thousand flowers bloom?” Or “A hundred flowers bloom?” God, it’s been so long.
GR: You’re also a professor at UCLA. How do you translate academic knowledge into a story to make academia more accessible?
RTP: When Asian American independent film started, as a part of the Asian American political identity movement, it was based on three pillars: artists, academics, and activists working together to make these films. That’s a really powerful combination. Filmmakers leading the creation of this content, shaping the story, and visualizing it. Scholars who have the analysis. Not only do they master the research, but they also have an analysis. Community people who understand what it takes to use a film to push social justice forward.
I’ll give you two examples. First, a few years back there was the Joseph Kony video. Now, it was kind of suspect. It was actually made by some White Evangelical group but all kinds of people loved it. I even saw it on some Asian American YouTube stars’ videos. People were just captivated by this Ugandan warlord who was recruiting child soldiers and pillaging his way through Uganda. The video was very flawed because it was intercut with scenes of these White kids. It has this whole White savior thing. But at that time, Joseph Kony was no longer in Uganda. The U.S. was taking aggressive action in Uganda, so the video lined up with their militarization because the Ugandan government was aligned with the U.S. It had all kinds of suspect politics. People on the ground in Uganda were horrified by this video and the fact that millions and millions of people saw it and were funneling all kinds of money to this group. That might not be a good example of not working with journalists or scholars or whatever. But it is an example of being divorced from content.
Second, I made a film years ago called Labor Women about three young Asian American labor organizers here in Los Angeles. I was working with Asian Women United, and when I was first conceptualizing this film I thought, “I’m going to focus on globalization in the food industry. I can look across these whole networks of how labor, the concentration of capital, and the globalization of labor and product works.” I talked to people in the Asian American labor community and told them my idea. I said, “What would help your work?” They said, “Really, Renee, if you want to know the truth, we go out there and we try to organize immigrant workers. We just need stories that can inspire them and show them role models of Asian women who stood up and took a risk. You have a very nice idea, but that could really help.” So I completely changed the film. I was an indulgent filmmaker, sitting in my studio, reading stuff, and thinking this complex analysis is what I wanted to do. But that wasn’t going to be useful at all. Engaging and working together really makes the difference.
GR: How would you define intersectionality across generational and language barriers?
RTP: It was really hard for me to understand intersectionality, which has been an idea that has been around for a long time. People trace it back to the 1990s amongst African American activists and intellectual feminists. I’m sure it’s roots go back even further. I didn’t really understand it until I started making No Más Bebés. The documentary is about an incident in L.A. County Hospital in the 1970s, not too far from here. Mostly Mexican immigrant women, all poor women, were being sterilized without their consent. This was happening to poor women all over the country at that time. They mounted a civil rights lawsuit and protests, and the film digs up that history. When I started making the film, I looked at it through the lens of a brutal violation of their bodies because of racism. I thought it happened to them because they’re Mexican. But I worked with Virginia Espino who is a historian who had done, again, not only the research into this case but had this whole analysis of Chicana feminism, the case, the intersectionality of poverty and race, and the power relationships within the hospital. It not only happened to Mexican women it happened to poor women, African American women, Native American women. Language also played into it. It was very complex. It’s not like they were just sterilized because they couldn’t speak English, or just sterilized because doctors didn’t like the fact that brown people were coming into the country. All these different things were going on. Making the film and being in conversation with people like Virginia, people working for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, people working on the ground who were really thinking about these things, made me understand how intersectionality works.
I think it’s also related to how I’ve been trying to understand how there is so much more diversity and complexity within the Asian American community after the 1965 immigration reforms. I’m Japanese American and Japanese Americans’ social indicators are through the roof: high educational levels, high income levels, etc. We enjoy a certain kind of ethnic privilege, but we have the marker of race. In making My America, I met Pang Ku Yang, a Hmong refugee who was living in Duluth, Minnesota. She was a garment worker and her husband couldn’t find a job. He had been a soldier with the U.S. Americans in Laos. They were very poor and she had lost five children in Laos. I’m talking to her about Asian American identity, but she had no question of who she was. No question of her culture. She knew. But her context was so different from mine. Yet, we’re both Asian American, so what links us? Intersectionality helps to understand what links us across class, gender, etc. It’s hard to talk about because by its nature it’s complex.
GR: I’m glad you mentioned Ms. Yang. I was in a class where we were doing readings about Hmong women, but the content was from the 1990s. I don’t even know if they’re still struggling with the same issues they were struggling with in the 1990s.
RTP: That’s why there’s this big move to disaggregate the data of Asian Americans. Hmong and Pacific Islanders really suffer from the Model Minority Myth that is occupied by certain Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and certain South Asian Americans. The Twice Blessed Indians are considered blessed from independence in India and 1965 immigration reforms. Many were able to migrate here, they were educated here, they had much more social mobility, and some are lighter skinned. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis— many of whom are Muslim, darker skinned, and have a different historical context— have ended up in jobs in retail stores, convenience stores, gas stations, and taxi drivers. I’m generalizing, but there is more of this difference between these two groups. Yet, they’re all South Asians. You can’t say, “You’ve got all these Indians like Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCola,” or "People in Silicon Valley are doing really well.” Well, that’s not true if you look at Bangladeshi and Pakistani, brown and Muslim South Asians. It has to be disaggregated.
GR: That’s what happens when you lump people from the largest continent in the world all together. Even though we mentioned the generalization of the Asian American community as a whole, what are some important sociopolitical issues Asian Americans are facing?
RTP: When I made Who Killed Vincent Chin? the disproportionate number of hate crimes were directed towards Asian Americans more than any other ethnic group. Now, it’s Brown and Black people. That includes South Asians and brown skinned Asians. We’re not all yellow. The hate crimes against Muslims are through the roof, they’re skyrocketing. That’s a huge economic, sociopolitical problem. Asian Americans by and large are very liberal and vote democratic. Because I’m on the left I see this as a problem, other people don’t see it as a problem, but there’s conservatism among Asian Americans that’s really growing. There’s anti-blackness among Asian Americans. People conflate their class privilege with race, which people think if you’re a Tiger Mom, you work hard, or if you’re Confucian, then you’ll make it in America.
GR: Yeah, that’s long gone.
RTP: Well, that’s not how things really quite work. There are also Asians who buy into the idea of a meritocracy in the midst of an oligarchy we’ve never seen since the gilded age. I think there is a lot of work to do within our own community.
GR: At the Asian American ComiCon, I was so thankful you said pop culture doesn’t save the world but people do. What does it mean to be politically active and to create change in the world? I think change is a daunting term and people get overwhelmed by creating change. They just don’t know where to start. How can you become more politically engaged?
RTP: They used to say “Act locally, think globally.” Here in L.A. people are fighting gentrification because housing is so scarce and people are being displaced from their neighborhoods, so they’re organizing on that local level. But when you think about gentrification you’re also thinking about much larger forces of investment, regulations, laws, how people are being denied mortgages, and rent control laws being stricken down. It becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. The analysis is really important. That is one thing that is really critical: getting together and shaping an analysis, a plan, and a strategy. If you look at mainstream politics like the Democrats, this should be the best time or them, but they haven’t really articulated a vision and a strategy. A lot of us keep on complaining, then I think to myself, “Well, ‘they,’ isn’t that us? Shouldn’t we be involved in it?” People here in Los Angeles, when Becerra our congressperson moved onto the Senate, his seat was open so all these women of color, mostly Latina women, ran for his office. They didn’t win, the machine candidate Jimmy Gomez won, but they got their feet wet, name recognition, and built a base. I think that’s happening all over the country. People are starting to act, which is what the Republicans did starting years ago. They took over school boards, state election boards, these so-called smaller offices, but they built what seems like this impenetrable structure all around the country, and that’s why they hold such amazing power right now.
GR: How can we create more intersectional activist movements?
RTP: One, It’s having this analysis. For example, I’m involved with this collective of Japanese Americans, the Nikkei Democracy Project. It’s filmmakers and media people, like Sean Miura is involved, Tad Nakamura, Tani Ikeda, Joan Shigekawa who used to be the director of the National Endowment for the Arts. After the election and with the rising Islamophobia and the attacks on constitutional rights, we decided we’ve got the power of the Japanese American story. We’ve got the wield it to talk about what’s happening today. We haven’t only looked at specifically Japanese American history or stories. Tani just shot this bus caravan of undocumented children and their families from Florida up to Washington, D.C. It was largely a story about Latinos, African Americans, and Black immigrants. We had to really think in terms of analysis about how to tell the story. We’re Japanese American, we don’t want to seem like the Japanese savior. It was really thinking about working with the domestic workers alliance that organized it, trying to figure out what they could use in terms of media that helps to tell that story. But, at the same time, how to reach our own community with the story and how to frame it. It was a real difficult balancing act, but trying to work out an analysis while understanding the ethics of power, of filmmaker and subject, understanding the meaning of race and representation.
Two, you kind of just have to work together too and live together and go to school together. The people of color who are more focused on social change on the left, there seems to be a lot more social interaction. Sometimes I’ll go to parties or something with white liberals or people on the left, and I’ll be the only person of color there. I don’t get that. In a place like L.A. or New York, how does that happen? You have to work to get only White people in the room because we’re the majority here. In the documentary field, there’s a whole movement in the past year or two called #DocsSoWhite, because there are all these big documentaries being made about people of color by White people. Now, that’s not a bad thing in itself, but the whole politics behind that of who gets green-lit, the class implications of even having a career in the business, being able to do free internships, who gets to go to film school, are bad. I had a really talented film student who got into USC film school, but he can’t pay for it. You can imagine all these talented people who just don’t have that opportunity, who cannot take that step into the industry.
When I got out of college, I could not get into the industry clearly because I was a woman and I was not White, I’m Asian. I mean, forget it. They weren’t going to let me in. Now that’s not necessarily true, but because of the intersectionality of these different factors—race, gender, and class— working class white people can’t get into it. When I show films all around the country, I’ll go to places like Indiana or Wisconsin, and working class Whites, young, talented filmmaker hopefuls aren’t living in the metropolitan center, they don’t have access to resources, they could never afford to come to one of the film schools, they don’t have those opportunities either. I think that feeds their anger if they hear us talk about being marginalized because of race and need Affirmative Action based on racial indicators, but then they’re also deeply marginalized just because of region and class and lack of access and resources. That’s why looking at things intersectionally is really important.
GR: How do we provide resources like that for people?
RTP: We’re sitting in Visual Communications. We’re here in a studio because they exist. Otherwise, where would we be? They do Armed with a Camera, and they have trained young filmmakers for fifteen years. They don’t shoot with Handycams, they shoot with real equipment and real crews. Those are resources. In response to #DocsSoWhite, last summer Asian American documentary filmmakers spurred by Leo Chiang and Grace Lee formed an Asian American documentary network. It’s amazing! Within a month of forming we had a convening at the International Documentary Association Conference, they’re a bi-annual conference here in L.A. We had another one in San Francisco, and in November the Ford Foundation is sponsoring one in New York. We’ve had meet-ups, we had an Ask Me Anything, we’ve had people like Claire Aguilar from the International Documentary Association, and Betsy Tsai from Sundance, and Geeta Gandbhir who is an editor and Emmy-award winning filmmaker. People can just ask them anything for advice. Part of that is for all of us who have been around for a while to pass on knowledge and resources and network with younger filmmakers. At meet-ups we can all drink together and eat together. Through our Slack sight and AMAs, we can pass on advice and get people connected. Then through our convenings we can organize and organize on behalf of Asian Americans. Duke University Center for Social Documentary Studies had a documentary fellowship for marginalized filmmakers. It did not include any Asian American or Middle Eastern or Arab Americans filmmakers in that group. We said, “Why?” I think Grace noticed, she saw the announcement. We got them to change it and open it up.
GR: That’s amazing!
RTP: That happened really fast!
GR: That makes me so excited and hopeful!
RTP: It’s organizing.
GR: You mentioned earlier you were a student activist. How do you think student activism elicits change?
RTP: If you look around the world, students have driven change in a lot of places and eras. The Asian American Movement for student activism has been really central from the very beginning. Even the term Asian American was created by Yuji Ichioka who was a grad student at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. They were organizing and he and others coined the term and that identity as Asian Americans, which really defined that identity. It’s not just a word but it really said something about not only in opposition to this idea of “Orientals” but that there’s this group of people with a common historical reality and who face a common experience of institutional racism and we were tied together by this experience. If we were going to move ahead we had to move ahead together. It was a really profound idea that happened on the campuses, a lot of these things happen on the campuses.
GR: What is your advice to young activists?
RTP: A lot of young filmmakers and young activists talk about self-care. At first I thought, “Oh my god, they just don’t want to work hard.” But now, I agree. Early Asian American women filmmakers and activists who grew up in very patriarchal families and maybe even partnerships and marriages had very little support as working women with children. I mean, I think they really suffered in a way I didn’t have to. Men are different, all the male partners I know are really affectionate, and clean the house, cook, and change diapers and the whole thing. I can never imagine in my dad’s generation them doing that. Or even people just a little bit older than me. It’s grueling. Social change is grueling, it’s hard work. It’s like when you’re in an airplane they say, “If there’s no air you have to put the mask on before you put it on the kid.” You do have to take care of yourself, I’ve come to accept that. I kind of think, “Oh god, they’re not working on weekends. I always work on weekends.” But I get that.
I look back on when I was an activist in college. All those people I worked with, we still are in contact with each other. Those people are still kicking ass, still creating change. We still talk to each other on social media. At Harvard, there was this whole anti Affirmative Action effort where they tried to elect these board of overseers who were going to overturn Affirmative Action. The fight against the election of those board of overseers came from Asian American alumni who were activists back in the 1970s and 1980s, even though Asian Americans don’t need Affirmative Action at Harvard. It was because of the principle of diversity for other People of Color. They really pushed this whole national fight and defeated that effort. When I look back, first we had so much fun. We really had fun, the activists were like the most interesting people at Harvard. That’s how I met Yuri Kochiyama through organizing the Malcolm X commemoration. It was just great. I don’t really quite remember the classes. I remember some of my professors whom I keep in contact with. But activism helped me figure out the world.
My husband who is Mexican American came up through the Chicano school-blowouts in South Texas. He is also very politicized. We have a teenage son and we see other kids struggling to be who they are and figure out who they are and their way in the world. We realize the fact that we were politicized solved so many problems for us. All kids by their nature are very self-centered, but when you’re politicized you think there is something outside of yourself. It relieves a big burden off yourself. Your self is a huge elephant. You’re filled with all these emotions, especially when you’re hormonal as a teenager and you’re angry all the time or happy all the time or whatever. Being politicized, we knew there was something other than ourselves. It gave us a structure, an analysis. A lot of our peers went through this self-hate because of race, and when I was growing up I was informed by the whole “Black is Beautiful” movement. We didn’t have that kind of self-hate. People think of activism being a self-less thing but it’s also a selfish thing because it helps to structure the world for you.
GR: Thank you for mentioning self-love and self-care.
RTP: Don’t take it too far!
GR: Oh, no obviously. I’m so glad you mention self-care because I think that is so discussed in student activism. What are some types of self-care and community care you partake in?
RTP: Most of my experience organizing has been within communities of color, and I'm sure this happens in all communities, but we eat together. People are always eating together. It’s great! I don’t like getting together in a meeting with folding chairs in some sterile room with fluorescent lights and just having coffee and donuts. We get together and have great food, we bring in noodles, people bring wine and beer and everything. There’s this understanding of what makes a community, not only an ideology. That’s really central in terms of community care. In terms of self-care, when I got married and had a kid, my husband had to remind me it’s not only about me anymore. I don’t know if it’s self-care, but I had to pay attention to my family and put limits on work. I try not to schedule things on weekends, that’s family time. I don’t know. Everything is individual. I’m kind of a workaholic.
GR: That’s great.
RTP: Being a workaholic?
GR: Not being a workaholic, but finding something you’re so passionate about that you want to keep working. Are you excited for the school year?
RTP: I teach the EthnoCommunications courses at UCLA that Bob Nakamura pioneered. He taught it for years and then I was appointed. I’m like the new Bob. We have three quarters at UCLA, so it’s three production tracks: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. That’s always really great. It’s different from what I used to teach at UC Santa Cruz, which was a pre professional graduate program in documentary. A lot of our students are never going to become filmmakers, but we always have some students who never thought of filmmaking but they have this talent. It’s so amazing to see! The other thing is a lot of our students are First-Gen, immigrant students, a lot of working class students, and their stories are from home. They just go home and they have these incredible stories. If you’re a filmmaker, quite often you’ll have to research constantly hunt around for stories. They have stories from their lives that I’m just blown away by. There is rarely a boring subject matter. Every year, we get this constant stew of new students. They are not only Asian American students, but the core is Asian American.
GR: What’s been one of the most memorable stories that has stuck out to you?
RTP: I had a graduate student who was in the school of Public Health. She was a Hmong student who had never picked up a camera. She went back home to the Central Valley and made a film about her mother’s relationship with chickens. It was amazing! She had this real eye for the visual environment that the Central Valley and her home, it was a very cinematic eye. I didn't know chickens were so central to the spirituality and life of Hmong people from birth to death. They have this special meaning. It was this amazing, funny, but just really beautiful and poignant story of her mother’s displacement and the symbolism of chickens. And not in a really New Age-y way. She slaughters them, eats them, makes the soup, and says, “Yeah, have your teacher taste this,” on camera. Her mother was really funny. I was startled. She was somebody who, unfortunately, will never be a filmmaker because she has to make a living. Because of her class status, she doesn’t have those options, and of course public health is really her passion as well. Hopefully in her work, she’ll be able to bring in her filmmaking skill and talent and experience.
GR: What’s next for you?
RTP: We’re working on the Nikkei Democracy Project. August 10 we’re doing a show at Grand Performances. We’re going to be showing films and performances with Vigilant Love. Vigilant Love is a grassroots group here in L.A. I’ve been working for a long time on “Building History 3.0,” which is a Minecraft Curriculum for K-12, mostly actually third grade through middle school. Minecraft is used to teach all kinds of subjects. We’re developing a curriculum so students can use it to build virtual Japanese American concentration camps. They research the history of Executive Order 9066, life in the camps, evacuation, incarceration, the politics and everything. Then on Minecraft they create their camps and bring in stories of people who are incarcerated. Then they have to do a presentation and show their work, and do a little film. In Minecraft you can move through the site. We’ll have little videos to go on with that.
Thank you to Visual Communications for letting us use their space for this interview.