by Jeana Cho
On Thursday August 15, 2019, Visual Communications and the Japanese American National Museum hosted AT FIRST SITE: Arts Activism on First Street North, Little Tokyo, in conjunction with AT FIRST LIGHT: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America. Focusing on the history of activism and the anti-displacement movement in Little Tokyo, AT FIRST SITE consisted of an opening reception, two film screenings, a panel of arts activists, a spoken word performance, and a closing reception with opportunities to take art into action.
This event was the product of 5 weeks of the 2019 VC Summer Interns’ (Rachel Chang, Jeana Cho, Sarah “Shoop” Rozario, and Rino Kodama) hard work and preparation, including only 2 weeks of promotion after its announcement. Despite the short timeline, the event was a huge success, having run very smoothly and attracting over 100 attendees, from whom we received lots of positive feedback!
This Thursday morning started off as any other, just with more jitters. We all felt ready but worried about the unknown: How many people would be there? Would people actually show up? What if we run out of food? What if we have too much food left? We had to take a few moments to channel Rino and Shoop’s Taurus calmness to gain composure. Then we were ready to go.
The opening reception consisted of some time to mingle and munch on some generous food donations from Far Bar, Spitz, and Trader Joe’s. With so much more food than we expected, we were thankfully able to send in all our attendees with happy stomachs!
At around 7:02pm, Rachel, Rino, Shoop, and I headed inside to start the show. Francis Cullado, Executive Director of Visual Communications, made opening remarks, then brought up Scott Oshima to speak about Sustainable Little Tokyo. Then the floor was ours. We each took a moment to introduce ourselves and to thank everyone for coming.
Shoop then introduced the first section of the night, screenings of the films 1970’S: THE FIGHT FOR LITTLE TOKYO by Duane Kubo and FIRST STREET NORTH by Kuniharu Yoshida and Ken Honjo. This was actually the LA premiere of FIRST STREET NORTH, so it was very special to have Kuni personally introduce the film. The films set the stage for the night by depicting the history of the anti-displacement movement in Little Tokyo, and that the fight for Little Tokyo still continues today right here on First Street North.
After the films, we transitioned to the panel with arts activists June Kuramoto, Zen Sekizawa, Amy Sanchez Arteaga, and Curly Dynamite, moderated by Rino Kodama, for a discussion on using art to stay connected with your community and build solidarity networks between communities.
Zen started us off, drawing on her deep connection with Little Tokyo given her background growing up with The Atomic Cafe, and how that influences her art and work today. June spoke on her experience as a kotoist in the jazz band Hiroshima, which started in the ‘70s, and the communities she was able to meet and form through it. Amy, who is currently a +LAB Artist in Residence with VC, spoke about her work with Cog•nate Collective as they address issues of citizenship and migration along the border, as well as their +LAB project FUTURE ECHOES, which highlights stories of people who call Little Tokyo home, and how they have fought displacement. Curly spoke on using art and poetry in organizing their community and empowering people through their work.
This intergenerational, cross-community discussion provided valuable insight on the diverse ways art can organize and empower people to fight for their needs, such as the space and community of Little Tokyo.
Closing out the night was Steady (Stephanie Sajor and Eddy M. Gana Jr.), who gave a powerful and moving spoken word performance, drawing on their experiences being othered in America and on their identity as Filipinx Americans. Their performance served as a clear demonstration of the power of art in word to move people to take action and build solidarity.
We then led everyone outside to join us for our closing reception, with donuts and mochi from Cafe Dulce and Fugetsu-do, along with arts in action tables. Attendees were able to sit down at a tea & letter-writing workshop with traci kato-kiriyama, and/or receive a word of their choice in beautiful calligraphy by Kuni.
After the event, the interns were filled with a huge sense of accomplishment and gratitude for this smooth and empowering event! Rumor has it that they even had a little post-celebration on their own to continue this glee.
This would not have been possible without the support of all the VC staff, who offered wisdom, advice, and encouragement throughout the entire 5 weeks of preparation, as well as being of huge help the day of, with check-in, food setup, photography, clean-up, and moral support. So thank you Francis, Eseel, Abe, Rachelle, Dorothy, Susan, Jo Saen, Janna, Trent, Stephanie, and Lailanie for all your kindness and guidance!
Jeana Cho is a recent graduate from UCLA with a B.A. in Communication Studies and minors in Film, TV, & Digital Media and Asian American Studies. She has been doing Production Design for short films and music videos since her freshman year of college, and is currently pursuing it as a career. Keep up with her work @yjch5 on Instagram!