KEYNOTE SPEECH -- AKIKO ASPILLAGA, ASPIRE
Written by: Akiko Aspillaga, So Young Lee, Dora Lee, and Wei Lee of ASPIRE
We Are America -- 2014 Japanese American Citizens League National Convention
April 11, 2014
Thank you Japanese American Citizen League Youth Council for presenting the Vision Award to us. We are deeply honored and honestly, surprised. As undocumented Asians, we are accustomed to the stigma placed on us by society, but most especially, stigma from the Asian community. We are used to hiding, getting thrown under the rug, and being forgotten. We sincerely thank you for honoring us today and helping us lift our voices.
Also, thank you for the wonderful ASPIRE introduction. It had almost everything. It stated what we stand for, our mission, and our accomplishments. But I want to introduce to you to the ASPIRE I know. This is Beatrice. She is an artist, a Pokémon master, and a self-proclaimed introvert. But when it comes to injustice, she is loud and passionate. This is Emmanuel. He is one of the most down to earth guy you’ll ever meet, who’ll sit in front of a deportation bus and risk felony charges. And if you are currently suffering from any type of heartbreak, he will be there to drive you to a dessert place and serve you most needed laughter. Last but not least, I want to introduce you to Dora. Her personality is as bright as the sun, and she is the best person to get arrested with because being around her has an unusually calming effect. They are just some of the people that makes ASPIRE what it is today.
In many aspects, we’re just like you. Young people of color who are hungry for real change. The difference between us is that we are labeled as “alien” because we got caught up in an unjust system. We do have a couple of members who came through the border—the Canadian border, while many of us came to America through visas, which easily got lost in a labyrinth called the immigration system.
All of us have different stories, but from across the board, we weren’t really conscious of our undocumented status until we were faced with roadblocks from every corner---from the desire to pursue higher education to making a career--creating a future for ourselves. Even the simple things become huge obstacles.
Imagine that right after your 16th birthday, despite proving how responsible you are--you can’t apply for your driver’s license because you aren't legally allowed to. Imagine you have been job-hunting for more than six months. You are more than qualified for the jobs you are applying for, but a nine-digit number prohibits you from pursuing your dreams. Imagine having an ocean between you and your loved ones, never knowing if you’ll ever see them again. Imagine life is like that everyday. Full of endless possibilities that are ostensibly within reach, but forbidden. On top of that, you always shoulder the fear of somebody taking a member of your family including yourself. Always making sure your fight or flight response is “on.” These are just some of the daily struggles we go through.
In a country that loves to advocate for the good of the people, for liberty and justice for all, millions are still living in turmoil. Our textbooks teach us about the land of opportunity, but they hide the stories of oppression towards people of color overshadowed by the glory of the United States of America. Our people’s stories have shown us that United States is a land of exclusion and injustice manifested in different forms. From the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Asia Pacific Bar to the 110,000 Japanese Americans held in internment camps to the quarter million APIs deported under the Obama administration alone, we continue to be excluded, enslaved, and oppressed. We saw in history the cycle of oppression, the persistence of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of racism, and the hyper incarceration of people of color and we continue to see it today.
These systems of oppression are perpetuated and made possible through hegemony. Hegemony is so deeply interwoven into our society that it becomes what is considered “common sense.” In this way, our consciousness must rise to question the “normal” to oppose our unknowing participation in the system of oppression. So... when we speak out on our missing stories, we are challenging our consent in the system as we deconstruct the dominant narrative in the U.S. national culture. When we engage in peaceful protests, we are challenging the violence or threats of violence to oppress our demands. When we collectively struggle together, we are challenging the system’s means to keep our resistance within manageable reach.
One prevalent way in which hegemony has played out in the Asian American community is through the social construction of the model minority. This myth does its job by pinning us against each other and dividing our solidarity as people of color. In the past, the 1960s black freedom movement, people in power--namely white men--used this myth to blame minorities for their downward mobility and to make the majority of Asian Americans politically submissive. However, hegemony comes in the form of increasingly clever disguises. Today, the model dreamers pursuing higher education are pitted against other immigrants or even their own parents who are blamed for bringing their children. In reality, the impact of model minority affects us all--the constant neglect of the government in our community’s issues of poverty, suicide, mental illness, drugs, educational attainment, and immigration. In effect, these issues become shameful. Skeletons in the closet that we’d rather forget existed.
Model minority has also led to our community’s silence. Our story of rising up and speaking out is not part of the regular K-12 curriculum. How many of us learned about Asian American freedom fighters in high school? Of Fred Korematsu? Of Yuri Kochiyama? Of Larry Itliong? Of Grace Lee Boggs? The power of hegemony repeats itself by covering up the stories of our heroes and sheroes--implicitly influencing the silence of our Asian American brothers and sisters. We become afraid and ashamed of speaking out about our own issues, let alone the injustice happening to our community, because we were trained to think:
It’s our fault we are struggling. It’s their fault, they’re struggling. Only I can help myself. If I work hard enough, I can rise above it all
But we know better. We know that political forces have external and internal influences in our lives. That the words “illegal,” “Jap,” “foreigner,” “gook,” “FOB” all serve the same purpose of excluding our lived experiences. So it is our obligation to stand even when our legs shake. For real change to happen, we have to let our truth--our suffering--speak even when our voices quiver. We must let those who experience it themselves speak and be heard. And if they are struggling to stand, we must hold them up.
We are all still struggling to stand. For me, one of the most difficult things to live with are the hateful words that I hear over and over again. It’s like being bullied. Words find ways to infiltrate hearts and are always there to kick us back down when we’re at our lowest. To give an example, a few years ago my friend and I just finished watching a movie, and as we were eating dinner, the topic somehow went to immigration. So I tested the waters with her and asked her opinion. She told me point blank, “All illegals should just go back their country!” I didn’t know how to respond to that. I opened my mouth, but no words would come out because it seemed like I was being attacked. Although I knew it wasn’t personal, I couldn’t help but take it that way. I was scared into silence by her animosity, but more than anything, I lost a friend that day. When someone you care for rejects an integral part of you, it becomes very difficult to face them the same way you used to. It wasn’t the first time it happened and it wasn’t the last. I had these very depressing thoughts. As if it wasn’t enough that my future was so uncertain, but also, people could hate me without knowing me. So like any normal person, I didn’t want to talk about it.
The constant feeling of shame, anxiety, and fear created a big barrier for many of us to advocate for ourselves. Breaking the silence about our immigration status was unthinkable because it is ingrained in our community for us to constantly hide. In Tagalog, undocumented people are called “TNT” or “tago ng tago,” meaning somebody who is always in hiding. I internalize that concept until about two years ago when my college counselor referred me to ASPIRE. We were all going through the same struggle, but instead of waiting for others to speak for them, they were the ones standing up for me--saying the words I’ve been too scared to tell anyone. I realized that right before me was a budding movement of thousands of young people fighting for our right to access higher education and pass pro-immigrant legislations that would decrease fear in our communities. I didn’t think that undocumented young people can do that! They helped me transform my fear, my uncertainty, my struggle as courage to speak my truth to call for respect, dignity, and compassion. In the five years since ASPIRE was created, we grew from a support space to standing on our own feet challenging the oppression that terrorizes migrant communities and people of color. They showed me that our most powerful tool is our collective voices.
Despite all the forces working against us, ASPIRE, other undocumented APIs across the nation together with our Latino brothers and sisters and our allies; continue to fight against the systems of oppression and injustice. We lead campaigns, hold actions, organize the immigrant population, inform the public about our truth, and empower our communities to fight with us for immigrant rights and social justice.
In the history of oppressed and marginalized people in this country, no victory has come about without the people organizing together in the community. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the women's movement all came about because people banded together to fight for what they needed. Instead of being subservient and yielding to the people in power, we see time and time again that the power of the people is stronger and more fierce. The generation before us have made great strides in advancing our liberation, but our fight is not finished. We must continue to advance their gains. We continue to struggle as people of color, as women, as LGBTQ individuals, and as immigrants, but we struggle together. As such, everyone in this room and the API community need to continue to work collectively to fight for a society that treats all its members justly and humanely.
Like Yuri Kochiyama and many other leaders in the movement, we were not born activists. We chose the path for social justice for all, after being impacted and seeing many cases of injustices happening around us. We need to break down this capitalist mindset of individualism and change to a unified front of collective leadership, in which ordinary people like us can become leaders and speak out our truth and seek systematic change. That’s the impact and legacy we want to leave not just through the undocumented youth activism, but through the intersectionalities of our struggles to have a holistic movement of all people towards freedom and liberation.