Asha Prihar

The Asian American Cultural Center kicked off Yale’s annual Pan Asian American Heritage Month last Friday and will continue its monthlong celebration with a full slate of events lasting through early April.

The month’s programming — which opened in Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona Hall with a keynote speaker event featuring Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — will last through April 7, ending with the Asian American Student Association’s 50th anniversary celebration and conference. According to the AACC’s website, this month will “explore the notion of citizenship in a variety of ways that [the Center] hope[s] will challenge the assumption that it is solely tied to pieces of paper.”

“Beyond celebrating the richness of the culture, traditions and history that encompasses the Asian diaspora in the United States, we really wanted to encourage a collective grappling with this notion of citizenship,” said AACC Director and Assistant Dean of Yale College Joliana Yee in the opening speech at Friday’s kickoff event. “With the incessant displays of racism, sexism, xenophobia and Islamophobia that we have seen this past few years, experienced by those who have built most of the years of their lives in this country, one can’t help but question who is afforded the full privileges of citizenship and who isn’t.”

The programming features over 15 events that range from an Asian Parents of LGBTQ+ Children Panel on March 28 to several food events and movie screenings. The slate of events also includes guest speakers, such as Vargas, the hosts of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast who did a live show at the AACC on Monday and Asian-American novelist Rachel Khong ’07, who will join students for a reading of and conversation about her book “Goodbye, Vitamin” on March 27.

In an email to the News, Yee wrote that while it is “always relevant” to “grappl[e] with and acknowledg[e] the privilege we wield as U.S. citizens,” today’s “fear-mongering tactics” and “legalized attacks” against non-white immigrant communities in the United States gives the theme special relevance. She encouraged students to move beyond discussion of today’s issues in the current political climate and begin to take action against injustice.

“I hope we will begin to see ourselves as the one who must and can make changes to the inequitable and unjust situations we see in our society today,” Yee wrote. “Whether that’s something you see within the AACC, your residential college, Yale, New Haven, your hometown, or the world, as the late Grace Lee Boggs said, ‘We are the leaders we’ve been looking for!’”

Friday’s event featured performances from student groups, including C-Sharp Chinese A Cappella, UNITY Korean Drum and Dance Troupe and Kasama: The Filipino Club at Yale. Following the performances, Yee gave a speech in which she encouraged the event’s attendees to “think about … what our responsibility [is] to work for the right to live in spaces and systems that fight and care equally for all of us, because all oppression is connected, and until every one of us is free, none of us can truly experience what it is like to be free.”

Following the performances and Yee’s introductory speech, Kayley Estoesta ’21, one of the AACC’s two head coordinators, introduced Vargas, an undocumented Filipino-American filmmaker and this year’s PAAHM keynote speaker. During his talk, Vargas — the founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit media organization that tells immigrant narratives to combat anti-immigrant prejudice and injustice — shared anecdotes of his own struggles caused by being undocumented and his experience of “coming out as undocumented.”

“My career meant a lot to me — it was kind of the only the thing I had,” Vargas said. “I knew the moment that I outed myself as undocumented … I’m no longer a journalist and a filmmaker, I would now be an ‘activist’ and ‘advocate’ — and they don’t mean that in a positive way. It’s more of a pejorative.”

Vargas also talked about his organization’s work and highlighted the inconsistency between how the media portrays the U.S. undocumented immigrant population and the real demographics, which he said also includes a substantial number of Asian immigrants.

Lillian Yuan ’21, an event attendee, told the News that she finds this year’s theme “interesting and timely,” and noted that Vargas’s talk raised new considerations for her to think about, as she normally associated “Asian-American problems” with issues like affirmative action and the model minority myth before Vargas pointed out the relevance of citizenship to the Asian-American community.

“The tone for PAAHM is now set as one that is radical in its call but deeply personal as well,” Yuan said. “From Jose Antonio Vargas, I now understand how the question of citizenship does not only affect those who are undocumented but our entire nation, and I also understand the struggle much better on an emotional level. Those of us who have citizenship didn’t earn it — we simply were lucky when we were born. So the question for this month is, what are we going to do with this privilege?”

Orven Mallari ’21, another attendee, said that he found Vargas’s remarks to be “refreshing and insightful.” He commended Yee for inviting a Filipino-American as the month’s keynote speaker, thus displaying “the breadth of what it means to be Asian-American,” he said.

According to Yee, the AACC has celebrated Asian American Heritage Month for over 10 years, but this year marks the second Pan Asian American Heritage Month. Yee said last year’s name change aimed to “promote and emphasize the unity of people from all across the Asian diaspora whose histories have and continue to be left out.”

Mallari added that he thought it was good to hear an Asian-American immigration activist highlight that undocumented immigration spans beyond the “‘Hispanic’ issue” that media outlets often portray it to be and holds implications for the Asian-American community as well.

“I think it shows how far behind Asian-American communities are in terms of politicization,” Mallari said. “I believe that for too long Asian-American communities have been coasting in the model minority myth — it’s time that we join that fight for real justice, too.”

In the Fall 2016 term, 21 percent of domestic Yale students identified as Asian, according to Yale’s website.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu .