Emil Guillermo: What I think of when you say AANHPI Heritage Month

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As May is our month, now known as the all-inclusive Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, keep in mind it’s intended as a celebration of culture and traditions–not necessarily our history. Culture and tradition are always festive.

Our history is much more ironic and bittersweet. It is also not necessarily “inherited,” though patterns remain hard to break.

History was the reason May was chosen as our month, since it is the day of the first Japanese immigrant to America on May 7, 1843; which would, of course, lead the way to a generation of Asian Americans who would later be incarcerated during WWII.

May is also when the Golden Spike on May 10, 1869 connected east and west within our borders and completed our country’s transcontinental railroad.

It was built on the backs of exploited Chinese immigrant labor.

Ironic and bittersweet.

Thank goodness you can change history. It’s not inherited, most of the time.

Personally, May is the month I remember the murder of my cousin Stephen Guillermo.

He was just 26, about to graduate, when after a night of drinking on the town, he returned to his family’s modest apartment on Mission Street in San Francisco. He lived on the 5th floor but got off on the third. It all looks the same early in the morning after a few drinks.

And then he tried to enter the wrong apartment.

He was shot and killed with a single bullet. The man who shot him turned himself in and spent three nights in jail.

And then the SFPD and the District Attorney let him go.

They didn’t want to prosecute because of California’s version of “stand your ground,” which gives the right of self-defense to any home-dweller with a gun who feels threatened by an intruder.

Nine years ago, I tried to make the case that a reasonable man, especially the suspect who was twice the size of my drunken cousin, would not have felt threatened. Therefore, the man should still be prosecuted for, at the very least, second-degree murder.

But there was no political will to challenge California’s stand your ground law. Authorities had the killer, but they didn’t charge him. They let him go.

And now another year has passed, nine in all. People are starting to notice how “wrong place” shooting deaths happen more often than not.

Just this past April, in less than a week, seven people were shot, one fatally, all from being at the wrong place.

One woman, Kaylin Gillis, 20, was shot in rural New York when she entered the wrong driveway. That’s when the homeowner, Kevin Monahan, 65, fired two shots, one killing Gillis. But New York doesn’t have a “stand your ground” law, and the suspect was arrested and booked on second-degree murder charges.

That case got headlines, and so did one in Kansas City. That’s where Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old African American kid, went to pick up his siblings at a family friend’s home.

But he went to the wrong address.

That’s where Andrew Lester, 84, heard the doorbell and grabbed his gun. He saw Yarl and thought he was attempting to break in. Yarl was shot once in the head and arm and told police Lester said, “Don’t come around here.”

Lester was charged with first-degree assault.

Missouri has a “stand your ground” law. But no one was scared to take it on.

As Ari Freilich, an attorney and state policy director with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “The law doesn’t allow someone to shoot first and answer questions later when someone innocently rings a doorbell.”

Despite my attempts in the media nine years ago, no officials in San Francisco wanted to challenge the California law for Stephen.

To them, it was just an African American apartment dweller shooting a young Filipino guy.

A case involving two poor people in America with more in common than not.

It was a case that was meant to go cold and die.

And that is part of the broader history of Asians in America.

The Chinese who were lynched throughout California in the 19th century. The Filipinos who were beaten, lynched, and shot in the 1920s and ’30s in San Francisco and in Stockton and Watsonville.

My cousin’s treatment was nothing new. My father was in that group of Filipinos in California in the 1920s. And now, here was his grand-nephew, an immigrant who was born while his family waited for their visas in Manila. He came here with the same hopes that my dad had.

Stephen was about to graduate from college when he was shot and killed.

It’s a modern version of our historical experience, a pattern that we try to remember and break all at the same time. It’s not our heritage, it’s our history. But with knowledge and understanding, we can do something about it. At the very least, we learn how to move forward together.

That’s what I think of every May, Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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