By: Janelle Sangalang, Aram Sassounian, Lei Yeh
[In collaboration with Traci Kato-Kiriyama, students from Professor Glenn Omatsu’s Asian American Studies 119: Asian American and Pacific Islander Labor Issues (Winter 2015) conducted interviews with Asian American community activists based in Los Angeles. As part of this activist narrative project, Janelle Sangalang, Aram Sassounian, and Lei Yeh conducted an interview with Christine Araquel Concordia and Johneric Concordia on February 18, 2015, and wrote this interview narrative.]
As our group walked into The Park’s Finest, we were welcomed into a relaxed, inviting restaurant. The servers were friendly and the customers were engrossed in their food and conversations. Much like the atmosphere, the married owners of The Park’s Finest, Christine Araquel-Concordia and Johneric Concordia, were also very inviting. We first met with Christine and Johneric followed shortly after, explaining and apologizing for coming slightly late due to their firing off of firecrackers in the back of the restaurant in celebration of Chinese New Year. Because of this, the initial moments of our encounter caused us to realize that Christine and Johneric were very down-to-earth people, just like us, causing all of our nerves to settle, allowing us to conduct our interview smoothly.
Throughout the interview, we learned that together with their childhood friends Oscar Bautista, Mike and Ann Pajimula, Johneric and Christine began The Park’s Finest as a catering company that started small, catering to birthday parties and community events. With the help of their community and organizations like Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), they were able to obtain business counseling and expand the catering company to eventually becoming a sit-down dining restaurant, ultimately through a cumulative community effort. Through the beginnings of the restaurant, Johneric emphasized the importance of serving and giving back to the community.
Both Christine and Johneric grew up in Historic Filipinotown at a time when the neighborhood was violent and living conditions were poor. Since these social conditions greatly affected their livelihood, they learned at a young age to value community. Johneric likened the environment to the movie Boyz n the Hood, in which violence was essentially present everywhere. “This was the neighborhood and community, but it wasn’t just Black. It was primarily Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and a lot of Central American cats. We were the kids of war—war babies,” said Johneric, as he explained that most immigrant families in the area left the conditions of their native countries due to consequences of war. This area, Echo Park, essentially served as the immigrant enclave in which everyone had as a starting point and used as a stepping stone. “You save up money, get an ID at MacArthur Park, get a job, and eventually move out. Everybody passes through and has roots here.” Even today, Echo Park holds a majority of ethnically Mexican and Central American people, but throughout the decades maintained a consistent Filipino population. The further influx of ethnicities into the town has created a diverse population and more communities to band with.
Early on, they used their talents to serve and fight for their communities. Growing up in Long Beach, Christine was involved in organizations such as Kababayan Alliance; East/West Community Partnership, which eventually became People’s Community Organization for Reform and Empowerment (People’s CORE); and Kabataang maka-Bayan (KmB) – Pro-People Youth. Johneric was involved in Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), People’s CORE, and KmB. They met through overlapping organization meetings through the Alyansa ng Komunidad and as Johneric repeatedly claimed, “Christine was the A student. I was the C student who followed her around UCLA.” They took their involvement in community organizations a step further as they both took classes with Professor Omatsu — Christine at UCLA, Johneric at PCC [Pasadena City College]. Years prior, Johneric also helped form an organization called YSTAN/D which stands for, Youth and Students Taking Action in the NeighborhooD. With help from the East/West Community Partnership, they were able to create a youth and student organization in the community that hosted many community events, barbeques, forums and health fairs to showcase what institutions had to offer, but also provide outlets for youth to be involved in pro-people issues.
When we asked about the organizations they were in, Christine and Johneric talked a lot about People’s CORE and how it helped guide them into the community activists they are today. People’s CORE serves to train, organize, and mobilize the Asian and Pacific Islander grassroots and community in creating systemic change. They are not limited in the kind of programs they take on, as they focus in the empowerment of Asian Americans. Christine discussed how important coordinating within the community was and how that has helped the organization meet with groups that reach as far as Long Beach. They described how in the past, before social media was so widespread, youth organizers from Kababayan Alliance, a coalition of South Bay high school Filipino clubs, would page one another or leave voicemails that described the locations of a meeting place or an event. Christine stated that, back then, there was a huge emphasis on one-on-one communication, and although organization and guidance was facilitated by People’s CORE, Kababayan Alliance was a high school student-run organization Even with the lack of text messaging and social media, People’s CORE was able to bring together groups like YSTAN/D and Kababayan Alliance and create programs that would ultimately teach people how to organize.
“Growing up in the nineties, it was just living around violence. It was the shit that people were exposed to and wanted to do. Kids had to learn to grow up real fast. SIPA, Little Tokyo Service center and other youth organizations tried to help the kids that tried staying positive and just were not having that happen,” explained Johneric.
For them, these groups would be the organizations that would keep them, and other youths like them who did not want to be a part of the violence in the area, safe and out of trouble. These group members were committed in coordinating events and they all shared a community consciousness that helped build a sense of community as they discussed pressing issues such as cultural identity, teen pregnancy, and gang violence. Johneric brought up the fact that, ultimately, it came down to using whatever resources they had around them, as a majority of the meeting places were informal, with most of them being hosted in their families’ or friends’ houses. It was through these meetings and facilitated forums that really helped instill community consciousness and helped build the sense of community for the two of them, which would eventually help develop their passion to stay integrated within their communities.
In order to maintain Asian American activism and to further spread it, Christine believed it was necessary to draw from experiences of older community members. It was from these past experiences and intergenerational exchange that guided her and Johneric through their development as community organizers, as the older generation shared their experiences, such as being in resistance groups in the Philippines under martial law. It was from these older activists that they learned the importance of always going back to the basics in engaging the people in order to create community consciousness and understanding the necessity of social investigation to fully understand the context of any issue before acting upon it and never taking anything solely for its face value. Christine looks upon the older generation and sees the history of oppression that she needs to address. She takes a strong stand on Filipino WWII Veterans issues by getting involved in the Justice for Filipino American Veterans (JFAV) campaign. In her involvement in JFAV, she voiced the injustice in which Filipino veterans faced after serving the U.S. military during World War II. Filipino veterans fought for the United States and in taking away the benefits they were promised, such as citizenship and health insurance, they took away their basic rights. Christine describes the important resources they provide for the veterans, such as the veterans affairs desk and social services at People’s CORE. She learns to fight for the older generation, alongside creating relationships with them to fight further cases of oppression. From this ongoing mentorship with older activists from different organizations, they were able to establish long lasting friendships. To them, activism was more than just giving back to the community, but it involved building community with friends and family. Both Johneric and Christine explained that the elderly, more experienced activists were not just mentors, but also close friends. “Imagine being friends with senior citizens in high school. It was pretty cool,” laughed Christine.
When asked about the importance for college students to give back to the community, both Johneric and Christine emphasized the significance that not everyone within the community will have the same opportunity as others to obtain a higher education. Throughout their community work, the two of them stated that they created long standing relationships with many others within the community, and for those who attended college, they would “bum-rush the college kids, Xerox copy their syllabuses and sit in their classes,” in order to ultimately use as many resources as possible to educate others. At this point, Johneric praised Professor Omatsu as a “Johnnie Walker Blue label” teacher, for being someone who gave the same quality information at such a high-ranking college as UCLA and at junior colleges. He emphasized the significance of not having quality education only existing in one place, and encouraging the need to spread it, as “education doesn’t stop only when you learn about it,” but it can be spread and progress further within a community. He further stressed the need and importance to spread the information learned by university students, given how expensive tuition was, and the act of not teaching others would ultimately not be economically sound. By doing so, they showed the true value for community and academics, as they were able to return to their communities and empower others. With the knowledge gained from Asian American studies classes, Christine would bring it back to high school students, as it was important to educate Filipino youth about their sense of identity and build upon it. She believed that the media portrayal of Filipinos and Asians in general was relatively non-existent, “so to learn about our history meant a lot to our community members. The idea of building that sense of identity and doing cultural historical workshops and passing it on was a big part of our community work.”
While Christine and Johneric talked about their respective communities, they also stressed the mutual respect people had with one another. Since they and other group members worked towards a common goal for their community they were easily united under a cause. “If it was Middle-Eastern, South Asian, it was good enough for us. Didn’t look like us… but they were still people of color,” stated Johneric, as he elaborated upon the mutual respect aspect of individuals within their communities. Although it may have been relatively simple to recruit others under the same cause to fight for, it is necessary to be open and not trample on others’ beliefs in order to maintain these relationships. Hearing how the actions of Kababayan Alliance, which was student run and consisted of over one hundred people, we wondered how their cause didn’t become fused or suppressed with conflicting priorities. Christine explained that they all had a common goal, which they saw, due to their respect for one another. Johneric contributed by going back to the community and the root of its meetings, in homes of the people that they personally knew.
Since they were so involved with the youth and fighting for Filipino veterans and organizing with KmB (Pro-People Youth), we asked how they reached people, especially Filipinos, who didn’t see how they were affected in these circumstances. Christine responded with an approach that differed from the American way, she politely said, “We don’t trample upon beliefs. We study all facets and show a pattern.” She refers to the pattern of repeated injustice within the community. In raising awareness she is able to reach out to people and show that a problem to one community is in turn a problem to other communities. She calls for action now when injustice is happening but not at the expense of another person’s beliefs. Differing from the linear thinking of American activism, Christine attempts to look at all factors, stating, “Social investigation about conditions is how you establish understanding.”
In an event that may not at first seem relevant to Filipinos, Christine and Johneric protested against the United States involvement in Iraq as they took part in the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition through KmB and the Alliance for Just and Lasting Peace in the Philippines. The United States and other Western civilizations typically hold a very dark history of imperialism, and the war in Iraq drew multiple parallels to the Philippine-American War. The astounding parallels between the two wars include: the takeover of a weaker nation full of natural resources, the act forcing Western-style democracy onto its people, as well as attempts to justify the war with non-supported information. During this time, the war in Iraq also created a lot of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the nation. Because of this, there were consistent warning signs from Japanese Americans explaining the consequences of war, especially for Middle Easterners and Muslims residing in the U.S. Although the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment did not escalate to the level of anti-Japanese sentiment from World War II, which eventually lead the the internment of Japanese Americans, the signs were all there, causing many Japanese Americans to speak up and prevent history from repeating itself once again.
“From almost every ethnic group that had conflict with the U.S., they all say, ‘hey, this sounds very familiar’,” said Johneric. There was a necessity for community activists to speak up against the injustices of the increasing discrimination towards Middle Eastern people living in the U.S. and unite others to participate in the anti-war sentiment. By doing so, they were able to bring the long-standing relationships in the Filipino community they had by showing the parallels between America’s involvement in the Philippines and in Iraq. The United States started the war in Iraq based on the assumption that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that national security was at stake. Ultimately, “there were no weapons of mass destruction. The entire war was premised on a fucking lie, half a million Iraqis were killed, it’s disgusting,” said Christine. She further states, “The money spent in the war could have been spent on housing or education”. While Johneric states, “Money to be spent on military, it just isn’t right”. If it were possible to educate and empower others in our community, it would be possible for us to dissuade those in power from declaring war under false pretenses. Instances such as these are what push them to continuously serve their communities over the years. The “War on Terror” may seem distant since it was not fought on American soil, but its consequences still affect the Asian Americans living in America. It is the duty of the next generation to learn from previous generations and to remember these atrocities in attempts to prevent these injustices from ever happening again.
While cases of injustice are everywhere, Johneric looks upon the ability of people to organize to get a message across. He brings up Occupy L.A. and how their act of protest failed to move forward due to a lack of organization. This is where he sees the role of teaching people how to organize as an important component within an organization. As Johneric explains, “Delegating responsibilities is where they went wrong. It was too ultra-democratic.” Instead of deeply discussing individual agenda items in full discourse, the Occupy L.A. movement should have learned from other progressive organizations, people of color organizations, and social movements to advance the cause. In comparison to the Occupy L.A. movement, he gave a counter example of how organized groups can advance campaign plans by discussing political issues with a level head over some BBQ, listening to one another, and then determining what the next best step would be to take. The central theme of community comes into view again as the core of every movement and organizations.
The pride that Christine and Johneric have in their communities also allows them to see injustices in communities beyond their own. The responsibility of giving back to their community is also a reminder for them to continuously serve and gives them the drive to sustain their drive and commitment to serving their communities. “I can’t sit to live comfortably knowing this injustice is going on. It’s the principled thing to do,” says Christine. Although Johneric admits that sometimes it is difficult to maintain motivation all the time, “you just have to keep on running or else you’ll fall.” He also goes back to the roots of The Park’s Finest as part of his motivation, as they initially began as a catering company and credits the local communities that helped them eventually open the restaurant. Initially, they would often attend anti-war rallies and return to the community to discuss next steps over a BBQ grill. It was this deep involvement with community that helped them realize the possibility that they could earn a living feeding people. Eventually, through support and donations from local communities and businesses, such as Oinkster in Eagle Rock, they were able to establish the restaurant and keep it going. He even shares an instance in 2011 when the community helped him: “We ran out of cash for renovations in January because the catering season was done in December, and on Friday the 13th, from six to ten p.m., we opened up for the first time and were able to pay rent.” In each case, the community helped them and became accountable for them. In serving their communities, Christine and Johneric become accountable to their community.
The importance of seeing the same oppression in other communities and applying it to our own respective communities are how Christine and Johneric lead their lives. It is also important to be able to not only recognize oppression but also to be able to act upon it in order to improve the situation. Johneric explained that, generally, when people learn that things are wrong, it is during dire economic and political circumstances, but there isn’t any time to fix things. However, during an economic boom, people are too busy enjoying their money, even though that is the period they have the most time to give support to the community but choose not to. With this mentality in mind, they are able to creatively bring attention to causes by allowing people to reach an understanding on how these social issues affect them, whenever it is necessary. We learned that through these methods they are able to expose the community to issues while simultaneously serving them.
They continue to emphasize the concept of community and teach us that we are not associated with one community. Earlier in the interview, Johneric listed the ethnic diversity in Historic Filipinotown. Towards the end of the interview he revealed that these different backgrounds actually have similarities within each other’s communities. Finding those similarities and connections make seeing patterns of injustice clearer. In collaborating with people from Central America, Mexico, China, and other communities we see recurrences and patterns of tactics that have taken away our rights. Rather than fighting each other, we learned to join each other’s communities to combat events in which people take the opportunity to take away our rights. We learned that we share common experiences with other communities and that requires us to give back. We also learned that being in a community requires us to work together and as a unit, not with one delegate holding all the responsibilities. In just collaborating with one another, Christine and Johneric teach us how to organize and find a cause to better serve the community.
Coming into the interview with Christine and Johneric, we knew about the importance of community and interacting with others in order to achieve a common goal. We learned that working in a team was beneficial compared to the individual, but through finishing the interview with Christine and Johneric, we truly understood what community meant. Community requires people understanding and knowing other people who might come from different ethnic/racial backgrounds or who might live in a different neighborhood or area. In meeting and interacting with people of different backgrounds, we learn more about ourselves and find deep-rooted connections. Our group itself is ethnically diverse and we can still find similar occurrences in which our rights were suppressed or taken away from us. Since Christine and Johneric were exposed to injustices from an early age, they were able to learn from their community and elders and apply their knowledge to their minds and heart. The barriers that they work to break down remind us that these causes relate to us because they affect our way of life and hearts. When we see injustice, it hurts us and the communities s us as well.