Love Letters to Movement Leaders: Mia Yamamoto

Dear Mia Yamamoto,

You are a powerhouse. You are an inspiration to all of the queer and trans Asian American youth who are beginning to navigate their personal journeys as activists. This love letter is dedicated to you, Mia, in gratitude for your life and your commitment to fighting against incarceration, racism, and transmisogyny.

You were born in a Japanese incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona in 1943. You spent the first years of your life in that World War II prison camp, but you and your family would later find a way to resettle in East Los Angeles. It was there where you would endure the toxic masculinity of the military and eventually join anti-war efforts.

Despite all of this, you knew you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Like me, attending community college was the only way for you to pursue higher education. You worked your way to UCLA’s School of Law and once there co-founded the Asian Pacific Islander Law Student Association, organized with Black and Latinx student unions to hire more faculty of color, establish ethnic studies courses, and provide resources to students of color. You showed everyone that low-income community college students of color like us can not only succeed, but we make those institutions do better.

As a lawyer, you committed to using your career to combat the inequities faced by communities of color. You spent the first ten years of your career as a public defender, and in 1984 you opened your own practice. You and your Black and Latinx colleagues created the Multicultural Bar Alliance in an attempt to build solidarity between communities in response to the brutal murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991. Since then, you have continued to build a career as a leading criminal defense attorney, representing and supporting trans people.

It wasn’t until 2003, nearly 16 years ago, that you would come out as trans yourself. You risked losing everything: your friends, family, clients, and even your life when you made the difficult decision to publicly transition at age 60. A choice that made you the first openly transgender lawyer in California. Thank you for using your vulnerability and visibility to show young activists that Asian American trans elders, who are so often erased from history, are indispensable members of our movement.

ABOVE: A still of Mia Yamamoto (middle right) from video “Liberation Day”

This year, I was fortunate to meet you in person as we boarded the Vigilant Love bus in Little Tokyo. That morning we introduced ourselves to one another as two nikkei daughters, together making the annual pilgrimage to the Manzanar incarceration camp for the first time. You told me:

“Imagine that we are getting into this bus right now, and have no idea where we are going, what is waiting for us, or how long we’ll be there.”

ABOVE: Mia Yamamoto (left) and Bianca Nozaki-Nasser (right)

Unfortunately, I do imagine this, all the time. As a Japanese-Lebanese-Syrian-American, my family has been personally affected by both Japanese incarceration and the current wave of Islamophobic policy and violence. Your decades of work remind us that we are not currently experiencing a particularly violent moment in time. Rather, we are living through a continued history of persecution, discrimination, and violence. The horrors of mass incarceration have been, and continue to be, the reality for many. This moment of reflection with you is an affirmation that we cannot be free until our queer, trans, black, brown, and Muslim siblings are also free.

ABOVE: Mia Yamamoto addressing the Vigilant Love Bus by Daren Mookoe

For all these reasons, I want to thank you for continuing to show up, Mia. Thank you for getting up at 5:00 am that morning to board that bus in Little Tokyo with me. Thank you for speaking to us and making sure that the next generation of Asian American activists knows our history. Thank you for letting us know how much work is still left to do.

Today, you are still tirelessly working in Los Angeles, using your practice to advocate for people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system and partnering with International Bridges to Justice, bringing legal aid to any incarcerated person.

We are grateful for your commitment, passion, and willingness to share your story, your work, and yourself with us. Thank you, Mia.

-Bianca, 18 Million Rising

This Love Letters to Movement Leaders series is a part of a collection of love letters that will be released throughout 2018 and 2019.

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