Written by: Maya DeJoie
Our latest conversation amplifies the voices of our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) staff: Cesiney Sapin (Digital Project Manager), Dani Simmons (Art Director), Iwalani ‘Lani’ Camacho (Senior Vice President, Media), Jill Responte (Junior Art Director) and Melissa Pierce (Senior Art Director). From Japan to Guam and the Philippines, their varied cultural experiences have amounted to interesting and relatable life paths. These paths shaped them into strong, empowered women whose talents touch various mediums of art, design, and digital media.
Asian culture holds sizable significance in the blueprint of America – a multicultural nation of immigrants whose impact is preserved by devout dedication to traditions carried through generations. Stories and life lessons shared by our AAPI staff, a majority of whom are immigrants, reflect the strong influence of their elders who encountered war, colonialism, and imperialism all while striving to provide for their families. Upon establishing a life in the U.S., they encountered challenges to their pride in their culture, mental health, and career paths that eventually helped them find their strength and individuality.
Today, these women of BG stand firmly in who they are, inspired by constant motives to preserve their culture through food, togetherness, education, creativity, and empathy in times that challenge the value of their heritage in America.
How do you identify with the Asian American and Pacific Island community?
Lani: I am from the island of Guam, and it’s been 22 years since I’ve been back. What’s unique about Guam is its Hispanic heritage. Back in the day, Guam was conquered by Hispanics so that’s why my last name is Camacho, but both sides of my family come from the Indigenous tribes of Guam, known as the Chamorro.
It’s also a place of military importance. My dad was a military brat, and my grandpa was in the Navy. During World War II, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, my family members were in hiding or internment camps in Guam due to the Japanese conquering the island.
Cesiney: I feel like Filipinos have a very similar kind of background. We were also a Spanish conquered territory. Anytime I meet a Hispanic friend, I can tell they have very similar values and traditions, even some of our language overlaps. I think that’s what makes our culture so diverse and different from some of the other mainland Asian cultures. With our generation, you most likely have a parent or relative who joined the military, which led to your immigration here in the States.
Dani: I am Filipino and White. My mom’s side is from Manila and Iloilo and my dad was raised internationally.
Melissa: I’m half Japanese, half American. My mom is Japanese and, of course, my dad was in the military. I was born in Japan and lived there until 2002 when I moved to Jacksonville and immediately started middle school, which was a culture shock.
Jill: I think like Cesiney was saying, you’re in the military or, on my end, come from a family of nurses. My mom convinced my dad to leave the Philippines and go to America after he was offered a nursing job. He moved in 2005, and my mom and I followed in 2006. I’ve been living here since I was seven.
“There’s a lot of stigma that comes with being multicultural.” – Melissa Pierce
Growing up, what has your relationship with your culture looked like?
Cesiney: Growing up and being a first generation Asian American, it’s interesting looking back at how my parents were trying to raise me and how hard that must have been. I remember growing up very conflicted. I never quite fit in with the Asian communities in my neighborhood, and on the other hand, I had other friends I didn’t culturally relate to. I was always trying to find that middle ground.
Jill: I went to magnet schools so I never really got a feel of the Filipino community growing up and being around Filipino kids. I grew up around mostly White kids and experienced more of a culture shock in middle school. Growing up in the U.S., it was really easy to assimilate since we had to speak English in classes in the Philippines to sound more educated. So, it wasn’t hard to blend in, but at the same time, I was never aware of the fact that I didn’t. I didn’t realize until much older that I didn’t have a Filipino friend group. I didn’t have a lot of kids my age that shared those cultural differences or that feeling of not being a part of something.
Melissa: Most of my family is in Japan while I’m here in the U.S., and my entire schooling has been in English. Japan’s culture is very homogenous. You’re either Japanese or you’re not, and there’s a lot of stigma that comes with being multicultural. In the U.S., it’s more of a melting pot so it’s not as bad, but I can feel like an outsider on both ends.
Dani: I dealt with a lack of validation. I’m mixed, so growing up, I felt like an imposter in my own identity. I felt like I was never enough of one thing for either part. Also being Filipino, like many other cultures, colonization still has its effects today. So it can feel like we’re not ‘Asian enough’ on top of issues facing our communities not being taken seriously.
Growing up and having multicultural experiences can come with challenges and adjustments. What is a significant challenge you’ve had to work through?
Melissa: Not growing up in a place where you freely express your emotions. East Asian culture, like in Korea or Japan, is very work-oriented. You have to do well in school. You have to get a good job. It’s all about getting work done. So, between making sense of my emotions, and just going through school, getting straight As, life is just passing by you and then you think, “I’m 31 years old, and what am I doing?” It feels like a crisis.
Dani: A big challenge was facing this fear on how I was perceived. Racist altercations would send me spiraling for weeks. Eventually, I learned that their perspectives of me are on them. I know who I am. Their confidence or how loud they are doesn’t mean they’re right.
Jill: I think, in our culture, our parents say you either have to be a lawyer, doctor, or nurse, and that’s it. It was always very frustrating growing up because I didn’t understand why my mom wanted me to be that way. I went on a trip back to my hometown, Surigao City, in the Philippines, and I realized why my mom was pushing me about my career… When you grow up there, if you’re not a nurse, it feels like you’re not going to be making money at all. There’s little to no opportunity to take care of your entire family and live a nice life if you weren’t in that profession or living abroad.
Cesiney: I totally relate [to Jill]. That’s the two Filipino routes you can take. You’re either an engineer or a nurse. Being first generation immigrants, we came in with those certain routes of success. I’m the only one in my family with a communications degree, and I remember getting a lot of strong opinions about this career path.
“In our culture, our elders didn’t want the younger generation to worry…There has been this big thing about sweeping the truth under the rug, especially when it comes to health, sickness, mental health, drug use, etc.” – Lani Camacho
Given some of the pressure from your elders to go down a certain path, how did you accept that and eventually come into your own?
Lani: I think, in our culture, [our elders] didn’t want the younger generation to worry. We were shielded from knowing if our elders were sick, and when we started asking questions about it, we were told to not ask questions. There has been this big thing about sweeping the truth under the rug, especially when it comes to health, sickness, mental health, drug use, etc. For some of my family, even coming out of the closet (sharing your sexual orientation) was scary due to concerns about what the elders would think. That kind of communication has gotten better because I realized my relatives were all just making sure we were ok.
Jill: My parents raised me to be very good at expressing myself and my emotions, but when it comes to connecting with my parents in ways that I connect with, maybe my American friends, it’s really hard to do that. So I can attest to sweeping things under the rug. Growing up, whenever I went through things, I simply did not tell my parents about it. In a lot of Filipino families, there’s a lot of pressure on the older child to take care of everyone. Eventually, watching my younger sister be open to telling my parents everything helped me to talk to them more.
Dani: I think I’m very lucky with my Lolo (grandfather). He joined the Navy and came to the States with my Lola (grandmother). He was a big supporter of the females in his life and would say “I came here, I’m doing this work. So you don’t need to marry a man to take care of you. You should go out and do [what you want to do] because I made the sacrifice. You don’t need to sacrifice anything.” He pushed my Lola to do her own thing, and she went on to become a seamstress, work for Vanity Fair, and even help ladies at her church sew dresses. So it’s more unique for me to go into a creative path having that inspiration.
Cesiney: I panicked right after college and took a year off. I remember thinking I should have become an engineer, have a guaranteed job, and be set for life. I took a boring desk job for 2 years then shifted to working with various small businesses, and that’s where I learned my love for social media and business. I remember thinking, “My aunts are going to judge me. They’ll say, how is she making it in this industry?” It’s not their fault for thinking that because they were unaware of other possibilities. I just realized there were other paths I could take, and I remember proving that. Like I’ve bought my own house. I can make it in other fields. I can be in a creative field and find my own way. I remember being very proud of that, and I’m still in it, so it’s very exciting.
What makes you most proud of your heritage?
Dani: I love our community’s perseverance and heart. With the rise in Asian attacks, it’s easy to point fingers and spread hate. Dissolving the model minority myth, and centering other Black and Brown voices, are at the forefront of the Stop Asian Hate movement today and are seen throughout history– with joining support for workers rights, Chicano Movements, Black Liberation, and so much more. Learning about our history provides so much more power to our voices and today’s fight.
Lani: When I was in College, I interned for the Congresswoman of Guam in Washington D.C. I was an intern on the Hill, but she didn’t have a say in Congress. We would have to get Senators from Hawaii or California to help. We had a voice, but we didn’t, and that was weird for me, but I became so proud of our heritage because we would still find ways to honor our culture like Liberation Day celebrations where our food and culture were represented.
Melissa: Whenever I travel to major cities in the U.S., I like finding things that are going on in the Japanese communities there, like festivals. Being able to partake in my own culture in a more elaborate way without visiting Japan has been a nice way to feel that community when you’re not able to go back home. With my parents here, on New Year’s Eve our family tradition – the Yamazaki family tradition – was to get sushi and make a hot pot. We would also make Good Luck noodles to have at midnight. (In Japanese culture, “good luck” or “long” noodles signify the wish for good health and longevity in the New Year.)
Jill: Food and community. As I’ve gotten older, being around family and other Filipinos has become a place of comfort. It’s comforting to know that they care about you even though they don’t see you all the time. I commend my mom for building her own community with other Filipino moms who hold dance practices to perform at Filipino parties all the time. That’s a really wonderful way to experience the culture that we could have had if we were still living in the Philippines, but with the family that we’ve created ourselves in the States.
“I think the worst part of Asian hate throughout the pandemic was that a lot of attacks targeted the elder generation – the generation that paved the way for us. That’s what hurts the most. No one knows what they’ve done for us, and yet people attack them because they are the most vulnerable.” – Cesiney Sapin
How were you affected by the pandemic and rise of Asian hate?
Jill: I’ve never personally experienced any direct racism, but my dad has. He is a nurse and sometimes, throughout the week and throughout the height of the pandemic, there would be patients who would refuse care from my dad because he looked Asian, which is insane. He was literally trying to help them.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, I was still in school and felt very useless studying art and graphic design. I didn’t feel like I was being a useful person in society, and I thought I really should have followed one of those professions because then I would have been important and able to help the world during that time of the pandemic. I think everyone kind of had that “what am I doing” moment during lockdown, but now, with the work we do at BG, I feel like I’m doing impactful work helping people without having to sacrifice my passion in creating art.
Dani: I felt like I’ve really come into my identity rather forcefully with the rise of Asian hate because growing up, I always kind of had that lack of validation and feeling like an imposter in my own identity. Being in the South, Covid and Asian hate along with daily personal attacks made me want to figure out how to show up for the community more and discover how I can use my skills to help and make my voice stronger for the community.
Everyone has a set of skills they can use. My Lolo (grandfather) was an incredible chef and found a way to use that to make sure his community was fed. I found it’s rewarding to use my creativity as a voice for change.
“I’d love to see people show their support politically. We’re working a lot on getting bills passed to include AAPI education in schools. And I think that’s really important to help stop Asian hate and then also just seeing people more aware of our issues and listening to our stories.” – Dani Simmons
Outside of work, what are aspirations that you are working towards?
Jill: I’m really hoping to eventually revisit and relearn Tagalog and Visayan to become more fluent. I live at home with my family and want to take the opportunity to speak in those languages while I’m here. I also want to do a Kamayan feast, where you lay out food on palm leaves on a long table and eat with your hands. I think it’s a great way to sit everyone down and have friends ask me questions about the food and why we [as Filipinos] do what we do. That’s a big cultural goal for myself.
Melissa: I have a similar thing where I can conversationally speak Japanese but am limited with reading and writing it. I really want to brush up on that and actually try to learn how to read and write fluently and be able to speak more technical Japanese.
Cesiney: Mine is food related too. My dad is one of the chefs of the family and there are certain Filipino recipes that make me wonder, “What happens to those recipes after my dad?” I don’t want them to go away with him. I want to learn them, so I need to figure out at least one to have in my back pocket, because I don’t know what our Filipino parties or holidays will look like when we’re older.
Dani: I’ve been focused on a lot of education and history and promoting that. This month, we’re having a showcase at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History, and it’s called I am Here: Our History is American History. It’s a group of local Filipino American artists all in the Pinay Project, curated by one of my favorite artists, Agnes. And we’re all creating pieces inspired by our history and celebrating how Jacksonville has the biggest Filipino population in the Southeast.
“Working at a company where diversity is celebrated so much, and where I can relate a lot with my leadership and coworkers, makes waking up for work every day better knowing I am with a team of people that I feel like I belong with.” – Jill Responte
What has being a part of Brunet-García meant to you?
Cesiney: I think our empathy [at BG] goes such a long way. Our founders are immigrants too, and they have stories that feel so similar and relatable, where you can connect on some level and understand the struggles while also celebrating things together. It’s an amazing part of our work culture.
Lani: For me, it’s been kind of different because I kind of started my own practice at BG [leading the paid media team], so it was about [leadership] trusting me. I can be my honest self here. I don’t have to come into the office dressed a certain way. And when I had a child, I had to leave and take care of my son. But [BG] didn’t give me that guilt. There’s always been an open and honest flow of communication.
Jill: In general, for me, to even work with a diverse team of people with different backgrounds, is incredibly empowering because I see on social media and the news how common it is for minorities to be underrepresented in their workplaces. Working at a company where diversity is celebrated so much, and where I can relate a lot with my leadership and coworkers, makes waking up for work every day better knowing I am with a team of people that I feel like I belong with.
Dani: Working in a creative field is very emotionally taxing, especially the work that we do here — taking on stories that are meaningful and that stick with you. Last year, after the Atlanta spa shootings, it really felt like I was drowning. To log in [to Zoom] and be very heightened in my emotions was difficult, but then I would see a face at that time that understood exactly what was going on and was grieving the same. Just seeing that and relating immediately, and even to just have non-Asian coworkers there, extending a hand was really nice. That company culture was exactly why I applied to BG. It’s that empathy and creating a space to make sure that not only is my voice heard, but it’s appreciated.
We hope that this conversation inspires new narratives that help uplift communities and create pathways to bring light to the challenges and learnings that we, as humans, endure.