Renee Tajima-Peña can pretty much identify the moment her racial identity was activated: While giving an oral report to her sixth-grade class about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, her teacher called her a liar.
Calling into question Tajima-Pena’s account of her mother’s and grandmother’s experience at Heart Mountain, a concentration camp in Wyoming, the teacher said, “Well, they fabricated the whole thing. This could never happen in America.”
“I was so mad. I just knew at that point that this history really matters because my teacher’s trying to shut me up about it,” Tajima-Peña remembered. “And I knew that, you know, we have to tell our own truth.”
She said the exchange fueled a personal turn toward activism as a young adult and eventually motivated her to become a documentary filmmaker.
Earlier in May, PBS debuted Asian Americans, an ambitious five-part docuseries — with Tajima-Peña at the helm as lead producer. Starting in the 1850s, the series chronicles the history of the nation’s fastest growing demographic, a multiethnic grouping that gathers together cultures, languages and immigration histories.
“You have to go out of your way to find out about Asian American history,” she said. “It’s shocking what people don’t know. We have younger, non-Asian staff on the series, and we’d ask them, ‘Do you know about the Japanese American incarceration camps? Do you know about Vincent Chin?’ They’d say ‘No, never heard of it.’ It’s like, oh, OK, I guess we better tell this story.”
Tajima-Peña herself played a key role in amplifying the story of Vincent Chin, the Chinese-American man from Detroit who was beaten to death in 1982 by two white auto workers who mistook him for being Japanese. At the time, Asian Americans became scapegoats as many blamed the decline of the U.S. auto manufacturing industry on Japanese car manufacturers. Tajima-Peña’s Academy award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, tells the story of how the justice system’s treatment of Chin’s murder case catalyzed the movement for Asian American civil rights.
Though she’s spent most of her life in Los Angeles, Tajima-Peña was born in Chicago and spent her early childhood in Lakeview and suburban Mount Prospect. WBEZ spoke with her about Asian Americans in the context of the pandemic, how her family ended up in Chicago, and how the making of the series unearthed a long-lost Chicago video archive.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“Asian Americans” is streaming for free on PBS until June 8.
What do you hope people will take away from the series?
Renee Tajima-Peña: It’s not about how Asians became American, but how Asians have helped shape America. I think that people just don’t realize that, you know, not only that we’ve been here but that we’ve been part of moving forward.
In the late 19th century, a Chinese American restaurant worker named Wong Kim Ark was denied reentry to the U.S. He took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won the precedent for birthright citizenship. That’s why my parents were born as U.S. citizens. Fast forward to the 21st century. Tereza Lee, a Korean immigrant to Chicago, became the first “Dreamer” whose story inspired Sen. Dick Durbin to sponsor the DREAM Act, to create a pathway to legal status for immigrants who came here as young children.
Part 2 of the series highlights the impact of the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, which you documented in your film, Who Killed Vincent Chin? How did that event change the Asian American political consciousness?
The Vincent Chin case really confirmed this idea of a pan-ethnic Asian America as a political force. But then, at the same time, our identity was being called into question because there were just so many new Asian Americans arriving, and they had a completely different historical memory.
Because of 1965 immigration reforms, and also because of people leaving as refugees and immigrants after the Vietnam War, you just had this huge influx of immigrants in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. So the Asian American population just really blossomed, not only in terms of numbers, but it just became so much more diverse.
And so I think the Vincent Chin case kind of culminated one era, but then at the same time a new era was being born.
Many are comparing the scapegoating of Asian Americans for the coronavirus pandemic to the racism towards Asian Americans during the time of Vincent Chin’s murder. How do you view the series’ release in today’s context?
Asian Americans realize that we can’t invoke Vincent Chin’s murder in the 1980s when Ahmaud Arberys [the unarmed African American man in Georgia who was fatally shot by armed white residents while jogging] are happening constantly in the African American community and in the Latinx community. And that’s the roots of the racism that are producing all this anti-Asian hate around the coronavirus, the roots of racism that are producing the anti-black violence, that are producing the fact that black, brown and indigenous people in this country are just getting slammed by the health disparities. I mean, the deaths and the COVID-19 cases are completely disproportionate to the population.
When we were doing the series, one thing that really struck us about that early period — you know, late 1800s to early 1900s — is that Jim Crow and anti-Asian exclusion were parallel. They happen at the same time. That was really a part of America defining who is an American, who can enjoy full rights and citizenship in this country. And that was really defined in large part by race. So, the roots have those fault lines.
It’s a real question for Asian Americans: where do we stand in terms of inter-ethnic tensions? Does justice mean “just us?” in terms of the relations between Asian Americans and other people of color.
We’re in such deep sh*t right now in not only public health, but the economy and the hate and the polarization. History helps us understand it so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. The Japanese American experience in World War II is something that is so present today because of the family detention and family separations along the border. The Vincent Chin case and the scapegoating of Muslims and South Asians after 9/11 are so present today because of the scapegoating of Asian Americans over the coronavirus. So that history matters — the history is really urgent.
How did your family end up in Chicago?
[In 1942,] when President Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, all the Japanese Americans on the West Coast had to evacuate, and most people ended up in incarceration camps. That’s what happened to most of my family. But my dad chose to self evacuate — he did not want to go to the camps. He figured, “Why should I go to basically a prison camp?” And he got on a train and went to Chicago.
He was 18 years old. He was just a kid. There was a labor shortage; a lot of the young men had gone off to war. They said they needed workers, so he was able to find a job in the Palmer House hotel. He’d go to jazz clubs, and he just fell in love with the city. When he got old enough, he was drafted into the service and deployed to Europe. Afterward, he came back to Los Angeles, where he met my mom and they got married. But in the late ’40s, they moved to Chicago.
A lot of Japanese Americans moved to Chicago because they didn’t feel welcome on the West Coast. Different pockets of my family on both sides had resettled [from the camps] to Chicago already, so my parents moved to Clark and Roscoe, just right around the corner from Wrigley Field. The Cubs were really kind of a center of life for the family. In the seventh inning, they used to let kids in for free, so my siblings would always go to the Cubs games.
In the early 1960s, when I was a toddler, we moved to Mount Prospect. But every weekend we were back on the North Side. My mother had a friend who taught Nisei [second generation Japanese American] women how to make those really beautiful Japanese dolls. So she would go and have a lesson every week and do shopping in [Lakeview] to get Japanese food and groceries.
You moved from Chicago to Los Angeles when you were around 8 years old. How did LA shape your Asian American identity?
[In Los Angeles], I grew up among so many Asian Americans. And people were becoming politicized and really identifying as Asian Americans.
In the late ’60s, I had older siblings who were a part of the fight for ethnic studies. And our generation of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans were just really being awakened. I mean, I was on the young end, but I was in the community. And so even as a child, I heard all that, and it filtered down to the playground and into the classroom. So by the time I was in high school, we were all doing these mini courses where we would teach each other about Asian American Studies after school, and we would have marches for ethnic studies.
When I went to college in the 1970s, I stated on my application that I wanted to major in Asian American Studies. This was Harvard. And Harvard still doesn’t have ethnic studies after all these years. But you know, I was naive.
The series features an excerpt from a 1981 video archive from Chicago, in which members of the Japanese American community testify about their incarceration experiences during World War II. The videos of these testimonies, which were instrumental in the eventual passing of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, were thought to be lost. How did your team come across them?
We were looking for the Chicago hearing [tapes], because we wanted Kay Uno’s testimony. Kay Uno was one of the siblings of a family that’s one of the main stories in Episode 2 of the series.
So in 2019, Chicago historian Ryan Yokota called one of our researchers and said, “You know, [Northeastern Illinois University] found over 60 videotapes of the [Japanese American] redress and reparation hearings in Chicago.’ We were floored because that’s so valuable.
It’s the power of film. It’s, you know, hearing their voices. It’s seeing them — there’s nothing like it. It just can’t be replicated in print. It just can’t be.
Renee Tajima-Peña is the series producer of Asian Americans. She’s also a Professor of Asian American Studies and Director of the Center for EthnoCommunications at UCLA.
Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ’s audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa.