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Mai Vang, who is running against Pastor Les Simmons for the District 8 seat on Sacramento City Council, thanks a crowd of family and friends during a watch party Tuesday night, Nov. 3, 2020, in Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood.

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It is Thursday, Nov. 26, and this is The Sacramento Bee’s AAPI weekly newsletter.

Here’s a recap of the stories I’ve covered and ones I’m following:

Mai Vang is set to become the first Hmong woman and first Asian American woman in recent memory to hold a seat on the Sacramento City Council.

Vang, 35, is an outgoing Sacramento City Unified School District board member and a former staffer for retiring Councilman Larry Carr. She ultimately defeated Pastor Les Simmons, a senior pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center and a longtime community activist.

Vang has long roots in the community, having grown up in Meadowview to a low-income family of Hmong refugees, and is the oldest of 16 siblings.

“I know what it’s like to grow up in poverty,” Vang said.

District 8, which she will represent, is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse council districts. It includes the south Sacramento neighborhoods of Meadowview, Parkway, North Laguna Creek and Jacinto Creek.

“It’s important to have leaders that reflect who they serve,” Vang said. “I’m proud of that. I am gonna be unapologetically Hmong and Asian American.”

Having Asian American representation in local government is important to show residents someone from their community can hold power, influencing government decisions and passing policies, said Dr. Richard Pan, a California state senator. But being “the first” is a position that often invites as much scrutiny as celebration, Pan said, especially for women and people of color.

“They can judge your entire community by you. You’re sort of the symbol,” said Pan, D-Sacramento. “Our flaws can be magnified into being the fault of an entire community. That’s not true at all, but you are often viewed in that light.”

And Vang’s victory shouldn’t be solely defined by her Hmong and Asian identity, Pan emphasized.

“It’s an exciting day for those of us in the API community, but also should be an exciting day for all the people in her district as well,” Pan said. “That community’s voice needs to be heard and she will do that.”

Advocates are calling for the release of two incarcerated firefighters who were on the frontlines of California’s wildfires this year. Upon completing their sentences, both were immediately handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

Now, after fighting dozens of fires and completing their sentences, they risk being deported to a country they’ve never known.

In a virtual press conference last Thursday hosted by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, advocates and legislators asked for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to pardon Bounchan Keola and Kao Saelee from ICE custody. Saelee and Keola both face deportation to Laos, where their parents fled as refugees when they were 2 and 4 years old, respectively.

“These are people who have done their time, they’ve gone through rehabilitation,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said during the news conference. “We should be integrating them back into our community and not facilitating the (President Donald) Trump deportation machine.”

Keola, 39, had only two weeks left on his 28-year prison sentence when he was crushed by an oak tree while putting out October’s Zogg fire. He was airlifted to a hospital and released the same night. Days later, California prison officials handed him over to ICE.

Fighting wildfires gave Keola a sense of freedom and purpose he had never felt before, he said.

“I’m just asking for a second chance to be a firefighter,” Keola said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to be out there saving people’s land, forests, lives

Sirisha “Siri” Pulipati is set to become the first Indian American and woman of color on the Rancho Cordova City Council.

Pulipati had 12,021 votes as of Nov. 20, finishing second in a three-winner race to earn a spot on the council. She’s an engineer at Intel and a longtime community volunteer who’s worked with organizations such as the Rancho Cordova Homeless Assistance Resource Team and Saint John’s, a shelter for homeless women and children.

Pulipati’s priority once she takes office in December will be to work with small businesses to start revitalizing Rancho Cordova’s economy, she said. She also plans to work with community leaders to translate information about the city’s resources into the multiple languages spoken by residents, she said.

A council role will be her first foray into public office.

“There were a lot of headwinds saying, ‘Maybe this isn’t the time to run,’” Pulipati said. “I only have one answer: Now is the time. There is never a wrong time.”

At times, the campaign trail was intimidating, she said, especially when she started getting hate mail belittling her for discussing her identity as an Indian American woman during her campaign. Getting more representation into local government was part of her motivation for running, she said. Still, Pulipati felt that she had the experience and community ear necessary for the job.

“The fact is, I am a woman … but I’m also an engineer, I’m also a community volunteer,” Pulipati said. “I know what’s happening with the city. I know how to manage a budget. And on top of that … I am a woman of color that can bring that voice to the City Council.”

In other news

  • Asian American candidates make history in NorCal races [KCRA]

  • Kamala Harris as Auntie: How Art Helped Fashion an Iconic Role [KQED]

  • Isamu Noguchi sculpture becomes White House’s first artwork by an Asian American [CNN]

  • Native Hawaiians among those hardest hit by COVID-19 [Honolulu Star-Advertiser]

  • Asian and Pacific Islander Groups Respond To Health Director’s Racial Slur [Capital Public Radio]

  • ‘It’s huge for those in the game’: Asian Americans in baseball on Kim Ng’s ascent [The Athletic]

  • Sticky rice stuffing speaks to family’s Chinese roots on Thanksgiving [Good Morning America]

  • Lawmakers demand Biden include Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders in Cabinet [NBC News]

  • Riz Ahmed on ‘Sound of Metal’ Oscar buzz and exploring diverse roles [NBC News]

  • A New Political Force Emerges in Georgia: Asian-American Voters [The New York Times]

This week in AAPI pop culture

Charles Yu took home the highly coveted National Book Award for fiction last Wednesday for “Interior Chinatown,” his fourth book, released in January to rave reviews.

The novel uses a screenplay format to follow the story of aspiring actor Willis Wu, a “Generic Asian Man” who is stuck playing background roles like “Background Oriental Male,” but longs to lead his own international film release as “Kung Fu Guy.” During the virtual awards ceremony, the judges called Yu’s novel “wonderfully inventive” and “by turns hilarious and flat out heartbreaking.”

Yu wrote on Twitter afterwards that he was so stunned he forgot to thank his family in his acceptance speech — which he hadn’t prepared, believing he wouldn’t win.

“I can’t feel anything in my body right now,” Yu said during his acceptance speech. “I’m going to go melt into a puddle right now.”

Before becoming a writer, Yu was a corporate lawyer for 13 years before quitting to focus on writing books and for television.

“It never stops being a reminder to me that as much as I might think I’m scribbling away alone, when the book does reach people and find a reader, when it really connects with someone sitting alone on the subway or in their house, it’s a real connection,” Yu told NBC News.

Congratulations Charles! Pick up your copy of “Interior Chinatown” at your nearest local bookstore.

On a personal note …

I was hired to increase coverage of Sacramento’s AAPI community, to provide news and information relevant not only for our vibrant, diverse population, but to also help us understand each other’s lives, concerns and successes. It means covering many different communities, each with their own particular nuanced needs and issues, but it also requires working on recognizing my own biases to help uplift stories from AAPI communities that have often been overlooked.

This, of course, includes the Filipino American community in Sacramento. I promise that I am thinking about ways to tell your stories, to be sensitive and understanding, and to tell them in ways that will help you feel that you are being heard. I want to work with you. I am learning, and I’m committed to working with you to get your stories told right.

I extend this message to every Asian American or Pacific Islander community as well. Please feel free to reach out to me with your insights and observations so that, together, we can improve The Sacramento Bee’s journalism and the community we share.

Got a story suggestion? Please reach out to me at [email protected]

Ashley Wong headshot.jpg
Ashley Wong, The Sacramento Bee’s Report for America reporter on Asian American and Pacific Islander news.

That’s it for this week’s newsletter. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

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Ashley Wong covers Sacramento’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community for The Sacramento Bee in partnership with Report for America. A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, she has written for USA Today and the East Bay Express.

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