Because I am interested in the ways material culture is used in the construction of identities, the brief but carefully staged opening scene of “My America…Or Honk in You Love Buddha” caught my attention. Renee Tajima-Pena’s props are the Statue of Liberty and a can of Coca Cola. Lady Liberty serves as a marker of immigration but more particularly of Europeans arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th century. That’s an immigration tale that modern-day white America embraces as integral to the national identity—in contrast to the past and recent experiences of Asians, Latinos, and others who are racialized as “non-white.” The coke can is a marker of assimilation, the embrace of American habits and values. Does being (or becoming) an American, Tajima-Pena seems to say require that we have the “right” history and do the “right” things according to some master narrative that homogenizes difference?
For me, the most disturbing moment in the film came when Yuri Kochiyama encounters Ernest, the guy who says he bulldozed the internment camp buildings. He has effectively wiped away the material evidence of her experiences. The destruction of “archives,” be they documents or buildings, is one way in which societies silence inconvenient histories. Ernest plays ignorant, but is he? Is he ashamed of the town's past? And, when he tries to articulate how he considered the internees to be like himself, he uses the word “them” repeatedly. That alone undercuts his assertions. Ms. Kochiyama must have been outraged. The tone of her voice changes and I could hear the pain and shock she felt at seeing that the camp had disappeared. Still, she conducts herself with amazing dignity in the face of this insult. She is certainly someone I'd like to learn more about. Here's a site produced as part of a class project that has more info about her: