Social movements of '60s and '70s illuminate importance of ethnic studies at ABR reading

Jan. 26, 2012 at 7:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 26, 2012 at 7:27 p.m.

The protesters were 13 bodies deep, linked together around the International Hotel in San Francisco in 1977.

"We won't move, we won't move, we won't mo-"

The police, high on horses, had infiltrated their barrier, swinging clubs along the way. Soon, they'd scale the floors of the so-called I Hotel, which housed a largely Filipino population. Tear gas would swell through the low-cost housing complex as hatchets busted down doors and long-time, elderly residents were dragged away.

And that was just the final protest - the last stand in what had been a decade-long battle to save the I Hotel.

This was the version of events author Karen Tei Yamashita shared at the American Book Review Reading Series at the University of Houston-Victoria on Thursday. And, this version of a single protest was only one perspective in a series of 10 novellas - each with its own narrator - compiled in Yamashita's latest book, "I Hotel."

Yamashita spent a decade researching the story, and after poring over archives, digging up underground newspapers and having conversations with 130 people connected to the I Hotel, she had more than enough information for the big book her friends jokingly call a doorstop.

"Emotionally, it was really draining. Sometimes for a few days I'd just sleep. Some of the things people told me were really hard to hear," she said.

After the eviction of the I Hotel, with its tenants often homeless, the area would remain only a hole in the ground until about five years ago, Yamashita said. "Shameful," she called it. Now the building is a cultural center and offers housing for the elderly - exhausting 30 years to come full circle.

The book is a fictional account of a true, politically hot time in America, especially the San Francisco Bay area. Yamashita put on a Filipino accent for her reading from "I Hotel," but she made sure to note the Asian-American struggle coincided with other movements of the time, like civil and gay rights.

During Yamashita's reading, photos from the 1960s and '70s loomed on the projection screen behind her, revealing scenes of social unrest, picketers andAsian-Americans who were instrumental in eliminating barriers to class and race and in championing the study of minority populations.

Ethnic studies, Yamashita said, are under attack because of the economic crisis and loss of funding to public education. But the education is as necessary now as it was in the '60s and '70s, she said.

"It empowers students to an intellectual vision of their histories. It gives students positive role models," she said. "I think the alternatives are bleak - gang violence, illiteracy, incarceration."

One UHV student, Delma Limones, said the mention of protecting ethnic studies rang true to her. Yamashita's humility and perseverance enticed Limones enough to buy "I Hotel" on the spot, she said.

"This is something that shouldn't be cut off," Limones, a 19-year-old freshman said. "I look to people like Sandra Cisneros... people in minorities who have made something of themselves."



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