"I Really Am From Here"

  • Published
  • By Capt. Heather Parcasio

“Where are you from?”


“Okay, but where are you really from?”

I was fortunate enough to know my great-grandmother before she passed. I vividly remember fond memories of her tiny dog that was always in need of a sweater, and the persimmons she grew outside. My great aunt is still alive, lives by herself, and plays the occasional golf game at 102. My grandmother is about to celebrate her 93rd birthday next week. All were born in the United States.

On my mother’s side (Japanese), my grandfather is Nisei (second generation) while my grandmother is Sansei (third generation). On my father’s side (Filipino), my grandparents are first generation to the U.S.; so depending on the grandparent, that makes me third, fourth, and fifth generation American.

I always feel funny when people are surprised, even disappointed, that I speak more Spanish than Japanese or Tagalog, even though I grew up and lived in Salinas, California, until I was 18. I enlisted into the Air Force in January of 2010 and later commissioned in 2017. I was not the first. Both of my grandfathers were the first in our family to serve in the U.S. military. I have plenty of uncles, cousins, and one brother who have proudly worn the uniform before me.

My grandpa Roy, on my mother’s side, and his brother Fred were drafted into the Army five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in August 1941. After Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was removed from his unit and put on detail work until the creation of an all-Japanese-American unit. Assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, they deployed to the European Theater during WWII. To this day, the 442nd’s actions distinguished them as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, however, Executive Order 9066 was signed. On February 19, 1942, Secretary of War was authorized to “prescribe military areas” to provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises and national-defense utilities.”

At the end of March 1942, under the authority of the executive, all Japanese citizens and legal aliens were ordered to evacuate California, Oregon and Washington. Within days, my grandmother, who was about to turn 13, and her family were incarcerated into barracks at the Salinas Assembly Center (now the Rodeo Grounds). The only items they were allowed to bring with them were their bedding and linens, toilet articles, extra clothing, knives, forks and any other essential personal effects. My grandma told me that her mother thought they would be sent somewhere cold, so they packed all winter clothes. Finally, in July they moved to the unrelenting desert of Camp II, in Poston, Arizona.

Even though barbed wire fences surrounded their families day-in and day-out, thousands of Japanese Americans from many camps still answered the call to serve their country at war to prove their loyalty. My grandfather toured Europe and returned to the U.S. at the beginning of 1945 due to a gunshot wound that medically discharged him from the Army.

Poston War Relocation Center closed in November 1945. Most Japanese families that returned home after the war lost everything and stayed at the local churches until they could get back on their feet. My family was fortunate enough to return to their house because they had leased it to a family before they left, but they lost all of their land and previous business. Although the war was over, Japanese families faced decades of discrimination and hostility ahead.

On the other side of my family, my grandpa Ben left home when he was 16 and joined the Philippine Scouts to escape an abusive home and seek a better life. He married my grandma in the Philippines in 1937. Silvino “Ben” Parcasio served in the Philippine scouts from 1927-1945. In April 1942, he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army, forced into the Bataan Death March, and imprisoned. During the march, prisoners received little food or water, and many died. They were subjected to severe physical abuse, including beatings and torture.

What most people do not know is that a few Japanese soldiers saved his life. My dad says that he remembers my grandma would talk about how skinny he was when he came home and that he was one of the lucky ones to survive; however, my grandpa talked about the compassionate “enemy” soldiers that saved the burnt rice from the bottom of their pots and gave it to the prisoners while no one was looking. After he was liberated, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1945 and served until 1962. He was the only person of color when he went to training.

More than 250,000 Filipinos answered the call to serve in WWII as scouts, guerrillas and enlisted soldiers in the Philippine Army. They were promised before and after the war ended they would get full benefits in exchange for their service alongside the U.S. military. On February 18, 1946, the Rescission Act of 1946 voided service of Filipinos and deemed their time of duty as not being “active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges, or benefits upon any person.”

My grandma survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II with two children while my grandpa served and was captured. During the Korean War, my grandma learned to be self-sufficient with four kids. In 1959, my grandma brought the family to Ft. Hood, Texas to be with my grandpa, then to Ft. Ord, California in 1962, when they eventually decided to make Salinas their home.

Neither set of grandparents ever talked about the war, about camp, or the hardships of moving to this country. They wanted their family to live the “American Dream”, a dream of freedom and ability to write our own futures. My mom barrel raced, and my dad played tennis when they were young. My parents met in high school, graduated from the same college, one in fashion design and the other in architecture. They raised a family of four in the town they met. Looking back at smiling photos, my grandparents never told the full story of hurt, struggle or disappointment. I had no idea of my family’s history until much later in life when my grandma published a book that was a collection of stories of the Issei (first generation) of the Salinas Valley. My grandparents’ success is a testament to their perseverance and strength in the midst of a country that still didn’t fully accept them.

Executive Order 9066 was only repealed in 1976, 31 years after the official victory over Japan. It would take 12 more years, though, for Congress to issue a formal apology with the Redress Bill that reaffirmed the truth that should the government grossly violate its own Constitution, the country must acknowledge the wrong and the people’s right to petition for redress. Finally, on October 5, 2010, Congress passed an act to grant the congressional gold medal, the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Almost 63 years later, the president signed the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act of 2009. The official recognition for their service and sacrifice came more than 70 years later. On December 14, 2016, the president signed the Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.

On 22 April 2021, the Senate passed a hate crimes bill with an overwhelming bipartisan support to address a drastic increase in violence and discrimination directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am encouraged to see the wave of support, but it saddens and frustrates me because these acts of aggression and violence should not have happened at all. Generations learn to hate based on the outward appearance, it is up to us to shape a new future. We should learn from our history.

My grandparents belong here. My parents belong here. I belong here.

Diversity and Inclusion is a hot topic that is slowly turning into an all-too-familiar buzzword many feel exhausted by, while others feel all the more fired up. Our access to information often turns to division because of profit margins and algorithms. The pressure to maintain social media keeps us vulnerable to often one-sided arguments gleaning for the clicks of our attention. The divisive lies that we tolerate are what the next generation will also embrace. The battle for social justice often seems like a lofty and challenging goal for a distant future we will never see come to fruition. So what is our part?

Some assume that to “keep the conversation going” is one circle of people sharing uncomfortable issues on a training down day, but it is so much more. The Air Force has the opportunity to lead our country because diversity is what we do every day.

However, inclusion takes intentionality. Diversity and Inclusion is more than just race or gender, but the beginnings of understanding the complexity of our past and shared experiences to create a brighter present and future. Through education, mentorship, and outreach into our local communities, the number of small steps we have to contribute are many. One step I am able to take is to share my family’s legacy.

I come from a long line of fighters. My family fought for what they believe in, who they knew themselves to be, and a future generation that had the privilege to never know their family’s past hardships firsthand. Everyone has a fight to fight. I encourage any person to evaluate how you fight because I believe we are able to with dignity, grace, and love, amidst headlines of hate just like my grandparents did. My fight starts with the confidence to walk in who I am, regardless of what people see or assume from the outside. My fight continues with intention to break down walls that inhibit others to have the same opportunity to feel included for their own unique story. Freedom to pursue our purpose is found when we embrace the authenticity of who we really are.

I really am from here.

I am Capt. Heather Sumiko Parcasio, and I am the proud granddaughter of Sumiye (Mae) and Roy Sakasegawa and Cipriana (Cippy) and Silvino (Ben) Parcasio.

I am half Japanese, half Filipino, and fully American.