By Amy J. Wong 黃佳欣
Editor’s note: Amy Wong with Andrew Fung Yip 葉兆峰 founded San Gabriel Valley Progressive Association as “a multi-racial grassroots collective in the San Gabriel Valley acting in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter”. Through social media means, SGVPA led a vigil at Monterey Park in March of 2021, after the Atlanta spa killings. SGVPA is amongst other grassroots groups like Streetsblog Los Angeles, SGV Connect, ColoradoBoulevard.net, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, and SGV Mutual Aid. In 2018, Wong was appointed to the Planning Commission in the City of El Monte. In 2020, she was a top vote-getter as a district delegate for the California Democratic Party, representing Assembly District #49. In addition to her work at ActiveSGV and SGVPA, Wong works as a Board Assistant to South Coast Air Quality Management District Board Member Veronica Padilla-Campos, and serves as a member of the L.A. Young Leaders Council for the National Parks Conservation Association. This is based on a virtual interview of 22 July 2021.
I ’m a proud San Gabriel Valley (SGV) resident. I was born and raised here, and continue to live and work in El Monte. Growing up, I loved nature and art, and over time, these interests evolved into a worldview centering on environmental and social justice.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, I moved back home to El Monte in 2013. Like other graduates fresh out of college, I wanted to transfer my skills and interests into a meaningful career. As a values-driven person, a part of me missed living in Berkeley, where progressive ideals were actualized in people’s everyday lives. So I started volunteering at local nonprofits that aligned with my values, including Day One.22 I now work for Active SGV, a community-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable SGV region.23 As I became more involved in the community, I developed a stronger sense of belonging and recognized the need to uplift and shift power to people of color in our San Gabriel Valley region.
My parents are immigrants—my dad is a Viet-hua and a refugee from the Vietnam War, and my mother is Chinese from Malaysia. I grew up in a multilingual household with my parents, grandparents, and uncles, speaking and hearing English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and occasionally, Vietnamese and Khmer. With this cultural background, I feel more comfortable thinking of myself as an Asian American rather than Chinese American.
El Monte is about 70% Latino and 30% Asian.24 As a kid, I was used to being in a majority Latino setting where Asians are a minority, and thought it was natural for schools to have this ethnic ratio, for our cultures to be intermingled. Going to college opened my eyes to the fact that the San Gabriel Valley’s cultural mix is actually incredibly unique.
I find comfort connecting to my culture through my family and through local restaurants and markets. Food is a natural connector. A restaurant in El Monte, Viet Huong on 10727 Garvey Avenue, has a menu in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish. At school, we didn’t just have burgers and pizzas, we had enchiladas and tamales. By first grade, I was introduced to different dishes—and people—from those in my home.
Generally, I don’t sense overt racism in the San Gabriel Valley but there are incidents that make you question the state of things, incidents others may not know about. For example, when I was in junior high, my Gong Gong went out for a stroll alone and was attacked. Prior to living in America, he was a Chinese language journalist in Vietnam. He continued his career in journalism in the San Gabriel Valley, assisting local Chinese newspapers. Gong Gong loved to walk, bike, and take the bus every day, especially to get from El Monte to Chinatown. His routine was abruptly interrupted after this incident, as Gong Gong ended up in the hospital with puffy eyes, stitches, and a bandage over his forehead. As a preteen, I was confused. I knew my grandfather would never do anything to provoke others or cause trouble, and frankly, nobody deserves to be a victim of violence. Our family didn’t want to go to the police, fearing doing so would lead to further injustice, so we kept this incident to ourselves. Feeling helpless, I painted the words “ngor oi lei, Gong Gong 我愛你公公” (I love you, grandpa) on a hot pink poster paper so my grandpa could read the characters behind his swollen eyes.
These acts of violence raise questions of racial tension: are Asians being targeted in the San Gabriel Valley? Asian Americans are sometimes stereotyped as a model minority, as if we’re inherently successful, rich, and/or smart, which is a myth used to pit us against other communities of color. Our Asian American community is multi-dimensional, complex, and diverse, even if mainstream media doesn’t portray us as such. As a majority Latino and Asian community in the San Gabriel Valley, we experience racism and at the same time, can also be perpetrators of anti-Blackness and racism ourselves. Even though we have a relatively small Black population in the San Gabriel Valley compared to other parts of the County, it’s important to stand on the right side of history, to support Black and Indigenous peoples who have historically suffered the most injustices in this country, and do our best to eliminate the roots of those injustices.
George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and SGVPA
Seeing cell phone footage of the police officer choking George Floyd to death broke me. In general, I don’t like watching videos of any type of violence, period. Sadly, this was another day in America where someone’s life was unjustly taken away because of their non-White skin color. This was also during the height of the COVID pandemic, when we were all required to be isolated per the COVID guidelines. The pandemic exacerbated every inequity we were living through prior. We carried and still carry these heavy frustrations of living in a society where our basic needs are not met; where racism is the status quo and literally kills people of color.
As I processed this, I didn’t see enough support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the San Gabriel Valley. Some folks, including elected officials, stayed silent and didn’t want to get involved in this necessary conversation of racial reckoning. I was angry and wanted to take action against injustice. And I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling this way in the San Gabriel Valley.
My partner, Andrew Fung Yip, and I ruminated on this, and we decided to create an Instagram page in May of 2020, “San Gabriel Valley Progressive Action” (SGVPA). Andrew was also raised in the SGV and served in the U.S. Army for about eight years before working at ActiveSGV. Our main intent with SGVPA was to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as a majority Latino and Asian community. We value and respect feminist, Black-led groups like Black Lives Matter-LA and Black Lives Matter-Pasadena. With SGVPA, we tried our best to support their demands, following their abolitionist framework.
We recognized the need for all of us in the SGV to be better allies, no matter our race, and join the fight for racial justice where we live. We wanted to get people across the San Gabriel Valley to talk, meet one another, and organize against racism and structural oppressions in the San Gabriel Valley. Another motivation was to bring attention to our unique region and put the SGV on the map. We saw large protests happening in Downtown LA and the Westside, but we didn’t want to travel far, and we knew there are people here in the SGV also angered by police violence and White supremacy. We wanted to create a movement here and empower local youth along the way.
The Instagram page exceeded our expectations. With the pandemic, we used Zoom as a way to connect virtually. We decided to host a public Zoom meeting as SGVPA in June of 2020. My partner and I said, “if nobody shows up, we can still talk as two people.” But people showed up. Participants reflected our SGV community, Latino and Asian. Our friends helped take meeting minutes and watch out for interrupters, and we were the anchors moving things along. We began hosting weekly Zoom meetings, gathering input on what actions people wanted to take, and hearing about organizing efforts across the SGV. Organically, our plans came to fruition.
During a pandemic, local outdoor protests and car caravans where folks could socially distance and mask up seemed most effective and safe. In one of the car caravans we hosted, we drove from Baldwin Park to the Pasadena caravan hosted by NAACP. We encouraged people from the SGV to organize where they were at, within their respective city. Throughout the summer, we offered support and provided advice, helping design routes for walking protests and assisting youth in various cities. There were June rallies in El Monte, Rosemead, Azusa, Hacienda Heights, Temple City, and San Gabriel. Often, we were not the main organizers but connected different folks across the region.
A highlight for me was when we worked with youth in Baldwin Park to advocate for defunding the police. After analyzing police budgets across the SGV, we saw Baldwin Park allocate 66% of their general fund budget for police. Working together, we submitted over 250 public comments to a Baldwin Park City Council meeting, requesting them to defund the police and reinvest in community services instead. The meeting lasted seven hours,until 2 a.m., as each comment was read into the record. While it didn’t lead to the police being defunded, it led to greater community awareness, giving a platform to young people speaking truth to power. For many, it was their first time giving public comment at a Council meeting.
Editor’s note: In January of 2021, a Baldwin Park City Council member pled guilty to taking bribes from the police union.25 In March of 2021, Baldwin Park Unified School District voted to disband their 36-year-old police department. The school district’s police cost $1.3 million/year and employed 10 officers, 3 dispatchers, 20 Campus Security Aides, and office workers.26 Baldwin Park Unified has 14,000 students in 20 schools, including 3 high schools.
I’m grateful for all the young people in our communities who are civically engaged and willing to challenge the status quo for the better. While I also consider myself young, some of these leaders are high school students. Young people are often labeled as the leaders of tomorrow, but, in actuality, they are the leaders we need today. Helping people recognize their own power and voice has been one of the most gratifying experiences, as community power is foundational to advancing systemic change.
SGV Community Vigil and Healing
My heart broke again after learning about the Atlanta spa shootings in March of 2021. Former President Trump was blatantly racist and anti-Chinese, which gave rise to more anti-Asian incidents in 2020 and 2021. The need to build a coalition between all of us in the SGV became more and more evident as we all live in this same White supremacist system. When we started reaching out to our network after the Atlanta spa incident, our Latino friends stepped up and said, “I may not necessarily have the same lived experience, but I empathize and want to help.”
We decided to host a healing vigil, a space where we could process and grieve together. SGVPA worked alongside partner organizations who helped organize and promote the event, including Change West Covina, La Puente Mutual Aid, Cat 911 SGV, Pomona Protests, La Puente Together, and the People’s Power of El Monte. We wanted to denounce White supremacy and violence against Asian Americans. We saw some communities respond to the rise of anti-Asian violence with a demand for increased police funding, which we oppose. Building community strength through divestment from police and structural violence was also part of our messaging.
We planned the “San Gabriel Valley Community Vigil and Healing” event in a relatively short time, but put in a lot of work to make it as grassroots as possible. The vigil was on 27 March 2021, with a virtual vigil from 1 to 2 pm, and an in-person vigil at Monterey Park’s Barnes Park from 5 to 8 pm. We had a broad range of speakers, including community activists and artists: Josh Andujo, Jennifer Love Tang, Alton Wang, Phung Huynh, Mo Nishida, Toki Ko, Kat Wang, Psi Jimenez, Rita Greenspon, Jaime Rodriguez, and Peter Dien.
More than 100 folks showed up from across LA County. It was a profoundly intimate experience, with masked participants sitting on blankets in the grass with signs and posters of solidarity, listening to each speaker with respect, grieving together. We wanted to build bridges with one another and remind ourselves that we are not alone in recognizing the need for justice, in wanting to see policies and actions, not just performative words, thoughts, and prayers.
My parents sometimes worry about my health and safety, whether I can balance both self and collective care. Ultimately, they support me, and I still live at home with them. In the beginning, when we started SGVPA, Andrew and I debated whether we should stay anonymous for protection. We didn’t want to be targeted. But I feel it is important to tell our stories and inspire others to use their voices too, for collective power. I don’t think it is wrong to say “Black people deserve to live.”
The COVID pandemic reminds me that the status quo is not okay. We don’t want to return to “normal.” Our basic needs were not being met before and during the pandemic. In fact, my grandma passed away this year.
As the matriarch anchoring my family, she raised my sister and me and was an activist in her own ways. Because of the pandemic, Grandma was isolated from our family for over a year while living at the nursing home. When I reflect on her life, I let myself feel all the emotions of grief, and I want to fight for better healthcare, senior care, environmental justice, and much more. Because she deserved better, and we all do too. Everything in life is political—the work I do is very personal to me.
The San Gabriel Valley is beautiful and unique. As a majority-minority community, we don’t have to accept the American Dream as belonging to a White supremacist framework with White standards of success, especially in an economy where my generation can’t afford higher education, housing, and other basic needs. We have our own definitions of living in America and growing our own communities how we want to see them, with justice for all. We have our own artists, storytellers, leaders, system-shakers, and people fighting for justice. We are centering ourselves as people of color and rightfully so. The SGV means so much to me. We are here. And I’m optimistic about the future.
22 Day One El Monte—or DO—focuses on “empowering youth with the necessary education and skills to be leaders in their community”. Established about 25 years ago, it is a community-based nonprofit organization that focuses on culturally-sensitive public health education and environmental issues.
23 ActiveSGV’s mission is to “support a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley.” Started in 2009 as a cycling Facebook page, ActiveSGV has grown as an agency that fosters civic engagement especially on policy and projects that improve the city environment.
24 In 2021, El Monte has a population near 116,000 with a 20% poverty rate and a median household income of $49,000. El Monte has 3.6% non-Hispanic White population, 0.9% Indigenous population, 0.8% Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population, and a 0.6% African American population. Much of this area of the San Gabriel Valley including La Puente, Baldwin Park, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights has a similar ethnic population as El Monte.
25 Michael Finnegan, “Former Baldwin Park councilman pleads guilty in bribery case, helps FBI with probe,” in Los Angeles Times, 27 Jan. 2021. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-01-27/baldwin-park-pacheco-bribery-police-union. Accessed 24 July 2021.
26 Joe Nelson, “Baldwin Park Unified moves to disband police department as part of sweeping budget cuts,” in San Gabriel Valley Tribune, 15 March 2021. https://www.sgvtribune.com/2021/03/15/baldwin-park-unified-moves-to-disband-policedepartment-as-part-of-sweeping-budget-cuts. Accessed 24 July 2021.