Aspen celebrates Asian/Pacific American (AAPI) Heritage Month through guided discovery with primary documents & historical artifacts

  • The Aspen Difference
Yuzo Nieto D.A.

Dearest Aspen Community,

The weather during the month of April can be difficult to navigate at times, with its frenetic patterns that seem to at once give us a taste of the incoming summer season, while simultaneously reminding us of the remnants of winter still biting at our heels. Growing up, I recall being comforted (as I’m sure many of us have) by the saying, “April showers bring May flowers” on days that seemed particularly gloomy. That being said, as we collectively transition into the month of May, my encouragement is to find a moment or two to pause and admire this  breathtaking display of aromatic art that our trees and plants give us before it’s over.

But beyond the beautiful flowers and fragrances bursting all around us, another more abstract flower emerges in May: the celebration of Asian/Pacific American (AAPI) Heritage Month. For me, the ‘petals’ that make up this proverbial flower are the tributes we pay to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and who have been instrumental in our society’s collective success. And considering such AAPI ceremonies as The Denver Cherry Blossoms Festival (a Japanese cultural tradition), the act of merely attending to the emerging floral beauty around us is one way to connect to one of a diverse array of cultures that encompass AAPI heritage.

But no matter how we each choose to pay tribute to the tremendous contributions made by the AAPI component of North American culture, another critical component to consider involves focused attention around the ways in which the label “AAPI” itself can be damaging at times (albeit an improvement from past labels) due to its inherent tendency to overgeneralize when describing something quite nuanced and varied. For instance, there has been a historical tendency in our society that ‘all Asians are the same’ which stems from a lack of willingness and/or ability to distinguish between the linguistic, cultural, physical, artistic, culinary differences between the vast array of ethnicities that fall under the umbrella of AAPI. One example of this  was the consistency to which I would be told I was ‘Chinese’ during my formative years. This seemingly small misnomer was actually something that cut deep because not only did I have zero cultural connection to China, I hardly understood my own Japanese cultural background having never been to Japan nor spoken any other language besides English.

Furthermore, if we apply this same lens to the concept of the social construction of race in the U.S., it is not difficult to find similar issues. The age-old attempt to define race by skin color further demonstrates the problematic nature of using overgeneralization as a method to categorize/group people with the 1922 Ozawa v. United States case. When Japanese-born Takao Ozawa applied for citizenship he asserted, as required by the Naturalization Act, that he was a “white person” due to having a lighter skin color than any other person in the court who were deemed racially white. However the court rejected Ozawa’s petition for citizenship, further complicating the validity of any attempts to associate one’s color with one’s ethnicity or biology.

My rationale for bringing this up is to say that although I appreciate the goals around celebrating AAPI Heritage month, as a half Asian American person, I do not feel as though I can authentically speak for, nor fully pay tribute to, each and every culture and subculture that encompasses AAPI.

Ruth Yamauchi seated at a typewriter (my grandmother) prior to forced removal and internment

(Photo: Ruth Yamauchi (my grandmother) prior to forced removal and internment)

However, I will conclude by highlighting a major tribute to Japanese American culture (within AAPI) occurring in our Mindfulness and Meditation class through Origami here at Aspen. This week and into next, students will be exploring and constructing their own, reimagined counternarratives of the Japanese American experience through primary documents from my own grandmother’s forced Internment during WWII. If you are curious, the Western History and Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library recently archived her oral history in their online catalog (linked here). The main idea being that this is an example of being specific rather than general as a means to paying tribute to AAPI Heritage with fidelity. And if you are interested in doing something similar and want a thought-partner to bounce ideas off of, my door is always open to you. Please do not hesitate to reach out. :)


Yuzo Nieto D.A.

Academic Director in Residence at Aspen Academy

About the Author

Yuzo Nieto, Academic Director in Residence

Yuzo Nieto served the Far Northeast area of Denver as both a music teacher and general elementary teacher for 8+ years and is currently in his dissertation phase for his Doctorate in Music Education with a focus in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Additionally, he is Chief Executive Arts Director and one of three co-founders at Radical Arts Academy of Denver (RAAD): a prospective Charter School pioneering Arts Based Learning from a lens of critical consciousness and community responsive pedagogy. He is excited at the opportunity to be a Moonshot Resident at Aspen Academy this year and to grow alongside students/community in such a wonderfully immersive entrepreneurial environment offered here. When he is not being a father of two elementary-aged children, Yuzo is likely playing music as the bandleader and songwriter for the original 10-piece ChicanoBeat (Hip-Hop + Afrobeat) ensemble, Pink Hawks.