Yesterday, my younger cousin Sana, who I consider like my baby sister, told me while intoxicated and leaving for a funeral, "Jean, you have to put your necklace in my coffin when I die because it always reminds me of you." The necklace she spoke of was a gift from my Aunt Norma in New Zealand. It’s called a "Manaia” and is made out of bone that was blessed by the Maori chiefs to guide and protect me, because my Aunt Norma said I would travel a lot in this life. She also said I am never allowed to take it off, once it’s put on -- something I reconsidered after hearing what Sana said.
There's a saying, “experience is the ultimate authority,” which is similar to saying, “you can't get wet, talking about water.” I always wondered, though: If experience is the ultimate authority and you've been getting wet all your life, how do you talk about water when you're close to drowning? I’ve been lucky. I have time and space to think about things. I have a camera, and I can write sometimes. Sana doesn't have those things. She tries, but I figure it hurts to be real about life.
May was Asian Pacific Islander month, and I'm not sure what that means for me. I guess it doesn't seem to mean much, when I look around at what is happening in my community.
On the First of May, a funeral service was held for a kid who was stabbed in Newark, and a couple days later Junior Seau committed suicide. Both were Pacific Islander. I found out about Seau while standing in an airport terminal in Texas -- the first time I'd ever seen a Samoan on the front page of USA Today. The media focused on Seau’s football injuries as the cause of his tragic decision. But I can’t help but think that depression in the Pacific Islander community needs to be considered as well.
After returning to the Bay Area from Texas, I went to visit my baby brother’s new child for the first time. On my way to congratulate them, I couldn’t shake the thoughts of the stabbed kid from Newark, of Junior Seau, of depression. My head felt heavy with worry for my new niece and her young parents – teenagers who had struggled to raise themselves, now responsible for raising another.
One of my best friend's is Native American, and a social worker. She is always trying to explain to me why data and research are so important. She gives me links to programs for my younger brother. She sends me all the new data out there on Pacific Islander communities, and we compare the issues – trauma, depression -- present in our respective communities. Most of the data shows our communities in peril. The newest data she shared with me was for Alameda County, where Pacific Islanders have surpassed the Native American community for the highest rates of poverty.
Back to May: Joyce, my cousin’s sister-in-law, a hard working single mother, dies of a heart attack. The funeral is held on Mother’s Day weekend. Her son, Ola, is 16 years old. At the funeral, my cousin describes them as the "closest brother and sister you can meet." After the service, I sit in a conversation with some of Joyce’s friends, who keep talking about how excited she was for Ola, who has plans to go to prom.
A couple days later, another funeral. A younger cousin is shot and killed in the Sunnydale projects in San Francisco. I hang out with Sana and other younger cousins, because I usually don't have the time. It’s sad that it takes a death to hang out with family.
Shortly thereafter, it’s time to leave again, this time to Alabama. One of the youth I’m working with, Tearra, lives in the Forest Hill Projects. The place feels deep in the country, but it’s actually only 11 minutes away from downtown Birmingham, the birthplace of the civil rights movement. We’re driving Tearra through her neighborhood, to drop her off at home and meet her mom. On our way there she tells me, "I don't like when it gets violent.” It's sad, but her words make me feel at home slightly. I think of my younger cousins.
When I get home from Birmingham, I go to a Pacific Islander town hall meeting. Congresswoman Jackie Spiers stopps by at one point, to listen to Pacific Islander concerns. Health issues, violence, lack of resources, education, and disconnecting the PI (Pacific Islander) from API (Asian-Pacific Islander) top the list of concerns.
But there are good things happening in our community, too -- slowly. There are people doing things to change all of this.
It’s the end of May. My newphew, Muzik, has graduated from kindergarten. And over the weekend, I celebrate my sister Chamorro’s birthday. She teaches fiercely in East Palo Alto, to a lot of Polynesian kids. At her party, I meet a lot of students from City College of San Francisco, and it makes me smile that alot of them are Pacific Islander, too.
I can't speak or hold responsibility for all Pacific Islanders. I can only tell you and show youwhat this month has been like for me, in words and pictures – work that is done with love, to honor folks like Joyce, Ola, Muzik, Sana, Brandon, their families and other folks that can talk about water, because they're still deep in it.