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  • The Makers of Meaning in Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles
  • Christina Ayson (bio)
Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968–80s, curated by Ryan Lee Wong, Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles, January 19, 2017 to August 13, 2017.

On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration and two days before the worldwide Women’s March, residents, organizers, and students gathered in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument with the members of the Chinese American Museum (CAM) to celebrate the opening of Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968–80s. For those attending the opening reception, national politics helped underscore the exhibit’s main themes, including community-based resistance, antiracist social movements, and crafting of racial identities.

Roots displayed over one hundred artifacts, including photographs, posters, literature, illustrations, newspaper clippings, videos, and music. These objects reflect the social and political awakenings among Asian Americans from the late 1960s through the 1980s—a period known as the Asian American Movement. The curatorial statement is by the exhibition’s curator, Ryan Lee Wong:

From Little Tokyo to Chinatown to Historic Filipinotown to the West Side, in solidarity with Latinos, Black, feminist, and international struggles, Los Angeles was a crucial and dynamic hub for defining Asian America. Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968–80s is the first attempt to collect and present this visual story, arguing that the past helps us make meaning of the present and future of our communities.1

During opening night, the issues of the movement remained at the forefront of the attendees’ minds. The activist Warren Furatani gave an impromptu speech responding to a question posed by an attendee on the exhibit’s relevance:

We are a part of a movement that goes far beyond any one ethnic group. We are a part of a social justice movement and that’s what is so important, because a movement doesn’t stop. A movement starts but it moves forward. And that’s what this is all about. It [the exhibition] is timely, because as a young organizer just said, there is an issue of resistance. We know that when there is oppression there is resistance. We know that when they try to put people in [End Page 947] camp, people will fight back. We know that when people are exhibiting racism, when they are using and targeting and using us as scapegoats (other groups of people)—we’ve been there, we’ve felt it, we know what it is all about. We will fight back. So, I’m not scared about Trump becoming president! I’m not scared one bit about his cabinet! I am excited about the opportunities we have to organize! . . . A movement of people to create a society that serves the people. That’s why the salutation from our movement at that time is still the salutation of today: power to the people.2

Veteran organizers hugged old friends and pointed to their faces displayed on the walls. Newcomers stared at the political photos and cartoons in awe. The Asian American Movement was rooted in creating a political Asian American consciousness to engage in institutional change for marginalized people locally, nationally, and globally. Combating normative structures and values on race, class, and gender, movement organizers had to deliver and create this message in creative ways, ultimately forging a new culture. The artifacts of the exhibition are a testimony to this creation. As Karen Ishizuka states in Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, “Together these cultural productions not only reflected a new consciousness, they created a new culture—of resistance and renaissance—that became the heart of Asian America. They were not just the means of representation, they were makers of meaning.”3

The Exhibit

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Figure 1.

“Title Wall and Education.” Photograph by Steven Wong, 2017. Courtesy of the Chinese American Museum.

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Visitors enter the exhibition and immediately face a wall covered in an enlarged photograph by Alan Ohashi. Depicted are dozens of Asian Americans marching on a street with their fists raised to the sky. A woman in the foreground is screaming into a megaphone as...


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pp. 947-965
Launched on MUSE
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