AAPI Heritage Month: Celebration and Remembrance

May is officially Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.

May is officially Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. As with the ebbs and flows of each season, the transitional month of May also represents the vast history of AAPI people in America. Being Asian American, this month instills a lot of humble pride in me, and provides a means to share captivating stories of our cultures, deeply rooted in the narrative of my home state, Colorado, and the nation as a whole. Originating with Congress in 1977, May was chosen specifically to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, with the majority of the track-laying workers being Chinese immigrants. There are many significant historical markers along our timeline, often a reflection of the harsh realities of ongoing racial discrimination. Yet, while our community faces plenty of adversity, there's also tremendous resilience, led by a multitude of incredible AAPI leaders including those here in Denver.

As a Colorado native (born and raised!) living in a predominantly white upper-middle-class neighborhood, I didn’t feel super connected to my Asian heritage growing up. You could literally count the number of students of color in my graduating class on your fingers, and while I was aware of being different from most of my peers, the impact of being a minority never fully dawned on me. Thankfully, I was never subjected to any major discrimination, but upon reflection there were plenty of microaggressions and instances of tokenization. Most examples centered around the challenges of being a woman of color, especially the stereotyping of Asian women: often sexualized and seen as shy and dismissive.

I am technically the fourth generation of my Japanese family in the United States by way of immigration; a Yonsei, as it is referred to in Japanese culture. My grandfather joined the U.S. Army, which ultimately brought my father to America from Tokyo. I’m also half Korean, which has been one of the most fascinating parts of my identity — with there being such a documented discord between the Japanese and Koreans. My mother had immigrated here from Seoul in her late teens. Truth be told, my own relationship with my Korean side is one I haven’t been able to cultivate as much, though I am truly hoping to explore it more.

Joann Asakawa Huntz. Photo by Maddie Costigan

This year marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Asian American history: the signing of Executive Order 9066. Issued during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order led to the incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war, the majority being U.S. citizens. This event continues to impact many Japanese Americans and resonates deeply with the AAPI community. My father’s family was not incarcerated — they were still in Japan at the time. However, the effects were certainly felt worldwide, as racial discrimination reached a new and devastating high. More recent hardships, like the Atlanta shootings in March 2021, accompanied a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S., bolstered by the ongoing pandemic. These events have showcased how racial intolerance is still very present. I know I’ve certainly felt an added weight of anxiety over the last couple of years.

Despite its heart-rending effects, Executive Order 9066 indirectly led to a particularly rich history of AAPI people in Colorado. In fact, its influence is very much present in Denver today, dating back to Colorado’s prewar governor, Ralph Carr, who spoke out against incarceration and welcomed Japanese Americans to Colorado. Denver was seen as a safe place for Japanese Americans to go after the war, and many ended up in the historic Five Points neighborhood. It’s important to note, however, the forcible imprisonment by Executive Order at the Amache internment site in southeast Colorado.

My family didn’t arrive in Colorado until 1966, but has direct ties to the war, demonstrating the many complexities of different lived experiences. My great-grandfather was a general contractor in Japan, and took on a project in Hawaii prewar, so my grandfather was actually born as a U.S. citizen in Honolulu, 1932. As timing would have it, the contracting job was completed just before WWII broke out, and they moved back to Japan. My grandpa’s unique circumstance of being a U.S. citizen prompted him to join the U.S. Army, where he became a very useful bilingual translator in the intelligence sector. It was because of this experience that he was later offered a job in Washington D.C. doing all kinds of interesting (and apparently very secretive) work. Eventually, he received a promotion to work for the government in the Department of Labor here in Denver. My family ended up in Lakewood, long before the Belmar shopping days, and became very involved in the local Japanese community and Denver Buddhist Temple, adding to Denver’s ever-growing diversity.

Denver has continued to grow exponentially with some truly amazing AAPI culture, from food and art to fantastic events, festivals, and everything in between. People may not realize the intricate nuances between different AAPI cultures, or even within each culture, which can be incredibly diverse and can’t simply be lumped into one generic category of “Asian,” or Japanese for that matter. For me, celebrating AAPI month means really exploring these distinctions and my own Asian American identity, reflecting on my story, and paying tribute to my heritage, while exploring others’ beautiful histories.

We’re lucky that Denver has many incredible AAPI-centered organizations focused on celebrating and amplifying these cultural distinctions — run primarily by badass Asian women. I got to speak with a couple of these movers and shakers, and learn more about their histories and how they incorporate their unique experiences into the work they do.

Courtney Ozaki, Creative Producer and Founder of the Japanese Arts Network

The Japanese Arts Network proudly connects artists of Japanese descent to collaborators, building meaningful relationships and developing resources that encourage sustainable and symbiotic relationships between artists and their communities.

Courtney Ozaki. Photo courtesy of CBCA.

Courtney’s roots in Denver extend to her grandparents, who after being incarcerated in Arizona and Texas, came to Denver following WWII. They became fully immersed in the local Buddhist Temple, which led to her participation in all the major festivals growing up and spurred her interest in taiko drumming. Through this, her Japanese American identity became very ingrained in her, and over time created more opportunities to connect with the broader AAPI community.

Courtney has a plethora of projects coming down the pipeline, including an immersive kitchen and recipe book based on her curated exhibit, Colorado’s Asian Food Culture: Rice and Resilience. This History Colorado exhibit focuses on the integral food culture of Asians in our state and how the AAPI community has contributed to the landscape of Colorado in myriad ways. It serves as a throughline between all the cultures and differences that make the AAPI community unique, highlighting staples of AAPI food.

Always seeking more experiential opportunities, Courtney is also collecting oral histories from AAPI community members for the Amplify Series, which includes a film session with Asian American artists. Then there’s the unique sound design audio tour, Stories of Solidarity, which specifically focuses on Five Points. It will include a VR/AR/XR experience detailing the story of Stanley Hayami, an illustrator, incarcerated at Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.

Photo courtesy of McNichols Civic Center and Arts & Venues.

Through all of her work, Courtney insists on the importance of promoting our cultural intersectionalities, keeping her personal and professional focus on finding ways to support artists through collaboration. As people of color, it’s important to recognize the strengths and nuances of all the AAPI cultures to be able to support them in different ways. Courtney loves creating new programs with other artists to encourage creative and daring thinking about how we can come together through shared interests to create spaces for collective healing.

Colorado’s Asian Food Culture: Rice and Resilience is on view now at History Colorado until April 16, 2023.

Amplify Series, in conjunction with the Arvada Center of Arts and Humanities, features artist-focused videos to be released throughout May, with a live program at 7:30pm on May 27th, 2022 at the Arvada Center.

Stories of Solidarity will be available in the month of June and a corresponding exhibit will be on view at the Savoy starting June 18th, 2022.

Sara Moore, Executive Director of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival (CDBF)

The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is one of the only Pan-Asian festivals in the state and a true celebration of its many AAPI ethnicities. This past February, Sara also spearheaded the very successful Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival.

Sara Moore. Photo courtesy of Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

Originally from Michigan, Sara visited Colorado because of CDBF. Then, in 2017, her passion came full circle as she became the Executive Director. She is a quarter Japanese, with a very intricate family history. Her grandfather was taken out of third-year medical school, and interned during WWII in California, serving as the site doctor. Afterward, he joined the Atomic Bomb Causality Commission (ABCC), where he studied the fertility ramifications of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There he met Sara’s grandmother, who was a white nurse from Wyoming, who also served with the U.S. Army on the ABCC. After their time in Japan, they went to Las Vegas to get married but were denied due to their interracial status, so they married in California instead. Eventually, they landed in Michigan, where their housing was initially denied, with racial issues again at the forefront. Sara recalls stories from her grandparents about their neighbors assuming her grandmother had adopted Asian kids, not realizing that they were her own. However, instead of resentment, this experience instilled grace in Sara, creating an open-minded approach to community and culture.

Sara says she is very lucky that she hasn’t had any negative experiences that have been racially motivated. However, being part Japanese, people do ask the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” In her experience, it’s been a good opportunity to share her family’s history, which is at the heart of CDBF. The festival is an incredible way to share AAPI cultures, experiences, and storytelling through what she calls “edutainment and participAsian.” She loves gaining feedback from the festival and people’s travels, bridging the gap between AAPI culture and the broader public.

Photo courtesy of Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

For Sara, being Asian American is all about learning and understanding – instilling curiosity, prompting questions and dialogue, and finding the courage to share and listen to stories from all communities. This is a great way to learn without judgment, allowing everyone involved to share their experiences.

This year’s Colorado Dragon Boat Festival will take place July 23-24 at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver.

To learn more about the complexities of the Asian American identity, check out some of these resources and the many AAPI happenings occurring throughout the month of May and into this summer.

If you find yourself at our Denver location, we’ve got a list of events for you to enjoy in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, May 2022. All communities are welcome!


Asian Avenue Magazine- Asian organizations to support

AAPI Festival at the Denver Zoo, May 14-15

The Denver Foundation resources

Asian American Wellness Day on May 7 from 10am-3pm at History Colorado — features artists and workshop leaders coming together for a day of wellness and collective healing through the lens of AAPI cultures.

Stop Asian Hate resources

Author Bio: Joann Asakawa Huntz is the Program and Outreach Manager at Meow Wolf Denver, where she works with the community to develop meaningful relationships. She has spent her career in the arts and culture sector, previously at the Denver Art Museum and the Art Students League of Denver.