• Personifying the University’s core values of “respecting the worth and dignity of persons” and “encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good,” a group of Southwestern students spent their spring break exploring how the contributions of workers, and especially the labor provided by immigrants, have often been undervalued and even erased in popular narratives about the U.S.’s economic and social progress.

Personifying the University’s core values of “respecting the worth and dignity of persons” and “encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good,” a group of Southwestern students spent their spring break exploring how the contributions of workers, and especially the labor provided by immigrants, have often been undervalued and even erased in popular narratives about the U.S.’s economic and social progress. From retail and manufacturing to landscaping and agriculture, from construction and janitorial services to home healthcare and salons, multiple industries rely on skilled and migrant labor, but these workers are often vulnerable to vilification, discrimination, exploitation, and abuse.

To explore the complexities of U.S. workers’ rights, a group of Spring Breakaway participants from Southwestern flew to San Francisco in March 2019 as part of the Hidden Histories: Exploring Workers’ Rights in Asian-American Communities experience. They partnered with nonprofit organizations to learn about relevant issues such as affordable housing and wage theft, focusing particularly on how Asian Americans have historically been involved in workers’ rights campaigns but were often overlooked in discussions about that labor movement.

Giving voice to Asian-American labor history

The Hidden Histories group was coordinated by Amiel Padayhag ’20, an anthropology and feminist studies double major and veteran of Spring Breakaway. She believes that the contributions of Asian Americans are often neglected in mainstream dialogues about labor because people are simply unaware of the group’s significant role in the U.S. workforce as well as in workers’ rights movements. “A lot of Asian-American labor history is just not taught,” she comments. “Their stories are not being told, but they’re important to be heard. If students and people of color don’t know that history of oppression, they won’t know where they come from, and they won’t know how to create something in the future that’s better, that’s not exploitative.”

 

To help fill that knowledge gap, Padayhag organized various educational meetings at SU in the months leading up to the alternative break. In one, she shared a timeline of Asian-American history that included the crucial role that as many as 20,000 Chinese workers played in building the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago—less than two decades before immigration from China was suspended by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The SU students further explored how thousands of Filipino workers were abused in American factories until they formed the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, Local 18257, in 1933. They also examined how Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American labor organizer and a major force behind the momentous Delano grape strike of 1965, has been expunged from many history textbooks despite being instrumental in forming the United Farm Workers alongside the more celebrated Cesar Chavez and civil-rights icon Dolores Huerta.

“Filipinos were an important part of that labor movement, but a lot of people have never heard of Lary Itliong,” says Padayhag. “That was something I felt it was important to expose people to: Asian and Pacific Islander [AAPI] history. If you don’t know that story, then your knowledge of history is not representative of all people’s experiences in America.”

Prison reform and the AAPI population

On their first day in San Francisco, the Hidden Histories team worked with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), an organization that helps especially AAPI prisoners—who constitute approximately 9% of the prison population—reintegrate into the community. The nonprofit also raises awareness about the growing number of AAPIs being imprisoned, detained, and deported. The Southwestern students wrote letters on behalf of a Filipina woman who was about to be deported. They also viewed Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story, a documentary film about one of APSC’s codirectors, a Chinese immigrant who, at the age of 16, became the youngest prisoner at San Quentin State Prison and later became one of the nation’s most prominent leaders on prison reform and youth violence prevention.

But perhaps most transformative was an opportunity to hear the story of a formerly incarcerated refugee named Sakhone Lasaphangthong. Born in war-torn Laos, Lasaphangthong was separated from his eight siblings at the age of 5 and lived at a refugee camp in Thailand for two years before arriving in the U.S. Because he did not excel in school and was often verbally abused as “stupid” and “not worth it,” he eventually joined a gang. He committed murder at the age of 22 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, ultimately serving 20. But during his incarceration, Lasaphangthong told the SU students, he spent substantial time in solitary confinement, which gave him time to reflect and discover that he had to “learn to voice his feelings without turning to violence.” He decided to devote his time to education, attaining three associate degrees in social and behavioral science, general business, and American studies. Now, he works for APSC as an ambassador, cleaning streets in Oakland’s Chinatown and working with the homeless.

“What I learned from his story was that prisoners are humans, too,” Padayhag says. “And we don’t often see prison justice in relation to workers’ rights, but actually, if you think about it, lack of security, safety, and income is one part of the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline.” That is, stress at home (e.g., that stemming from family separations or financial difficulties resulting from parental under- or unemployment) and/or stress at school (e.g., being bullied) can cause some immigrant students to act out. If those students are criminalized by being suspended or expelled from school as punishment for their disciplinary infractions, they are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, which, in turn, can lead to detainment and/or deportation by immigration officials. The SU students recognized that Lasaphangthong’s story exemplified that concept, but they were equally touched by how he had improved his life through self-reflection and self-education. “When I was there, he was pushing around my wheelchair and calling people on the street by name, showing how much he cares about his community,” Padayhag recalls. “Sakhone’s story was very, very powerful. It made me realize what it means to have a lot of your future defined not by you and not by opportunity but by the lack of it—by poverty and the lack of a good education.”

“Sakhone’s story was very, very powerful. It made me realize what it means to have a lot of your future defined not by you and not by opportunity but by the lack of it—by poverty and the lack of a good education.”

Environmentalism, activism, and advocacy

The Southwestern students next worked with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a Bay Area–based organization that promotes environmental sustainability, leadership among area youth, and civic participation in underrepresented communities. The Hidden Histories team gathered feedback from residents and learned that Richmond, California, is locally known as a “toxic doughnut” because numerous hazardous-chemical refineries are concentrated in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods there, degrading the air quality. It was a stark lesson in how marginalized communities often have little choice in where they live and therefore in the living conditions that can endanger their health and livelihoods.

The Southwestern team also connected with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), a nonprofit devoted to educating, organizing, and empowering low-income and working-class Chinese immigrants to work for better living and working conditions. The SU students toured Chinatown and learned about the history of the community and how the CPA supports workers who can’t advocate for themselves.

One of the other memorable learning experiences occurred when the Hidden Histories team partnered with the Silicon Valley chapter of Anakbayan–USA, a Filipino student–led grassroots organization that seeks to promote independence and democracy in the Philippines. The SU students participated in a workshop on Filipino labor policy and discovered that the Philippines’ largest export is human labor (2.3 million Filipinos work abroad)—and that the U.S. has had a hand in the demand for such labor.

The alternative breakers gladly engaged in various conversations with the young activists. “A lot of our participants were already involved in social justice or were conscious of oppression and unjust systems,” Padayhag says. “But during our trip, they came away thankful they were able to learn about the activists’ personal histories, too.” For example, one Anakbayan member shared that he had been forced to work at the age of 6. His was just one individual voice attesting to the abuses inherent in the broader system of child labor. Padayhag links her appreciation of such moving anecdotes with her major: “Because I’m an anthropology major, it was impactful getting to hear from our community partners because I really like stories and learning how those stories illuminate larger patterns in society and culture.”

Empathy and social justice

When the participants of the Hidden Histories alternative break looked back on their experiences, several focused on the importance of giving human faces and individual voices to systemic inequalities. “I enjoyed hearing activists and community members’ stories—that was one of the most inspiring aspects to me. To humanize and personalize an issue is to really care about it, and this world needs more of this,” said one student in their reflection. Speaking at a Lunch and Learn about Spring Breakaway, Alesha Lewis ’21 said she appreciated learning about Asian-American culture as well as workers’ rights. She was so affected by the experience that she felt compelled to share what she had learned with her classmates after returning from San Francisco. “It was very enriching and educational to be part of something like this,” she says. “It’s been a big part of my Southwestern Experience, and I’ve really loved it.”