Home People Mercedes Luna: Thriving Within Her Rich Heritage

Mercedes Luna: Thriving Within Her Rich Heritage

By Elaine Ikoma Ko For The North American Post

Mercedes Luna.
Photo: David Cho Photography

Director of Individual Giving at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
mluna@wingluke.org

linkedin.com/in/mercedesluna/


All photos courtesy of the Luna family.

Mercedes Luna has come full circle, returning to work for the museum which she visited as a child with her father. Her example shows how a young person can proudly embrace and thrive in a rich cultural heritage.

Let’s learn a bit about your heritage — your maternal side is Japanese and your paternal side is primarily Filipino and Native American.

Yes, I am fourth-generation Japanese American (Yonsei) on my mother’s side and Filipino and Native American on my father’s side. My maternal family history, according to Japanese temple records in Kobatake, Hiroshima, state that we are related to the Imperial line dating back to the 5th century BC. Through my mother’s paternal line, I am descended from Tsudo Sabuo Michisugi, the great-grandson of Emperor Nijo, Japan’s 78th emperor who ruled from 1158-1165. So I have Imperial roots!

Every summer, another branch of my mother’s maternal family holds a huge family reunion in California where most of my extended family lives. My Shima-Inouye family just held its 47th family reunion in San Diego this summer. These reunions honor our ancestor George Shima, who in 1908 founded the Japanese Association of America (Nihonjin-kai), the first Japanese American community organization involved in civil rights.

George Shima, Mercedes’ great-great uncle and founder of the Nihonjin-kai, the first Japanese American organization that pursued civil rights (circa 1915).

At first, Shima could not afford to buy developed land so he drained swampland, invented farming equipment, grew potatoes and other produce. Eventually, he became the first Japanese American millionaire.

Yet he always preferred to call himself “just a simple farmer.”

Harry and Chika Yamauchi Mercedes8217 great grandparents visit their Japanese homeland circa 1910

My grandfather, Robert Yamauchi, was born in rural Washington State, and at the early age of six, he knew he wanted to be a physician. As a young adult, he served in the decorated Japanese American 442nd Regiment. Fortunately, after WWII, he was able to study medicine and become one of the first JA graduates of the University of Washington Medical School. During the war, my maternal grandmother’s family was incarcerated in Rohwer, Arkansas.

At that time, only one woman, one Jewish person, and one non-white male were allowed into each UW medical class. By chance, my grandfather met my grandmother, Kazuko Inouye, in an elevator at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital, where they both were doing internships. Kazuko was a dietician, college professor, and freelance wellness writer for “British Vogue.” She also advocated for healthier organic foods by serving on policy committees with the American Dietetic Association. She raised four children, including my mother Deni, in Spokane, Washington.

My paternal grandparents were Indipino (Filipino and Tlingit Indian). My indigenous heritage begins with a maternal line of strong women. My great grandmother was Matilda Peters and my grandmother was Corinne Leach; both were formidable, generous women. Matilda moved to Seattle from Alaska in 1924. She met her first husband, a Chinese immigrant named Quon Fou Jeun, while he was working in Southeast Alaska. A few years later, she met and married my paternal great-grandfather, Felipe Monzon, had my grandmother, Corinne Monzon and eventually raised seven children in Seattle. They both started the Seattle American Indian Women’s Service League in 1958. In the 1960s, they established the Seattle Indian Center, one of the earliest urban Indian service centers in the U.S.

Elizabeth Peratrovich Mercedes8217 great great aunt is remembered as the Native American Martin Luther King circa 1945

Proudly, I am an enrolled member of the Tlingit tribe and am of the Raven moiety (tribal lineage). My ancestors fought for justice. My great, great aunt, Elizabeth Peratrovich, is known in the Smithsonian Institutes’ National American Indian Museum as the “Native American Martin Luther King, Jr.” She and her husband, Roy, were instrumental in securing equal rights in Alaska in 1945, nearly 20 years before the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

My Indian name, Kin Too, is an honor to bear. When I was still in the womb, Kin Too, the Tlingit matriarch, felt guided to gift me with her own name. Kin Too means “always striving” and I am proud to be among the first of four young women given the name Kin Too.

Due to housing restrictions and redlining practices, all Natives moving to Seattle were forced to live in Seattle’s International District. The very first place my grandmother and great grandmother lived was right across the street from my current office, where the Szechuan Noodle Bowl is, a frequent stop for me.

Cecilia Koontz aka Kin Too the late matriarchal leader of the Tlingit Tribe far left bestowed her name on Mercedes far right They bracket Mercedes8217 parents Judge Douglas Luna and Deni Luna 1991
Mercedes with grandmother Corinne Leach, a.k.a. “Mother Theresa of the Tlingits” (1991). (Related story, p. 5)

My Filipino paternal great-grandfather, Felipe Monzon and grandfather Luis Luna immigrated from Cavite, Philippines, through enlisting in the US Navy. The very first home my dad lived in was just three blocks from the Szechuan Noodle Bowl location.

Your father passed away in 2011 and left a huge legacy. Tell us about him.

Mercedes’ father, Doug Luna, nationally named in “Top 10 Most Inspired Judges” in 1992 (1992).

My father, Douglas Luna, grew up an Army brat, moving constantly due to his stepfather’s military career. Dad lived in 13 different places, eventually returning to Seattle to complete his education at Franklin High School before deciding to enlist in the Air Force and serve in Vietnam.

When he came back, he had seen so many of his friends perish or become jaded from their experience. It made him want to go into a career in public service, because he knew he was lucky to have survived and wanted to make sure that he gave back in some way. He therefore finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington and earned his law degree from the University of Oregon.

As a young attorney, he faced a lot of racial discrimination from potential employers. In some cases, he interviewed for the only spot designated for non-white individuals. Another firm ended the interview by making him leave through a back exit so no one in the lobby would know that there was a person of color in the office at the time.

Despite facing numerous obstacles and discrimination, he eventually went on to become an Administrative Review Judge for Washington State and King County, among other judicial appointments. Throughout his career, he volunteered judicial and non-judicial services to our community. He served as Vice President and Chief Justice of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska. He also served as a judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System, a consortium of Native American Indian Tribes in the Pacific Northwest that covers thirteen different tribal courts.

My dad was a founding member of the Asian American Bar Association of Washington, the Washington State Commission on Asian American Affairs, and the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS). He was active in many other organizations including the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and INTER*IM (International District Improvement Association).

From left: Deni Luna, Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Z. Smith (Mercedes’ godfather) holding Mercedes, Congressman Jim McDermott (Mercedes’ godfather) and Doug Luna (1991).

I am proud that he received a distinguished award as one of the nation’s “Top Ten Most Inspired Judges” from the National Judicial College in 1992.

My dad was also one of the people who helped build the beloved Danny Woo Community Garden in the Chinatown-International District (CID). He became the famous midnight cook during the annual pig roast, along with our beloved “Uncle Bob” Santos. Sure, we see images of my dad in his judicial robe, but it was watching him butchering the roasted pig or serving community meals at the Seattle Indian Center that really define who he was for me.

Thanks to the Oral History Lab at the Wing Luke Museum, his legacy is captured here:
http://collections.wingluke.org/items/show/50

Tell us about your mother who also is an accomplished local community contributor.

My mother, Deni Yamauchi Luna, is a journalist. So it’s no surprise that my parents met organizing a social justice media conference for the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA). Later they both served together as Commissioners.

My mother was among the first local women in broadcast and later covered the West Coast for international media like Gannett, PBS and the BBC. She was especially drawn to altruistic companies like National Public Radio, Seattle’s KING5-TV and the Northwest Asian Weekly newspaper.

Her real joy is community organizing, particularly against white supremacy. She co-led the Puget Sound Task Force on Human Rights, which held grassroots hearings on hate crimes. She created the nation’s first conference bridging people of color and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer) against hate crimes in 1993. Back then, the conference was considered controversial. For example, some feared the Black community was “religious and would never accept gay people.” However, my mother found the opposite. She noted that many community leaders, such as the highly esteemed black Justice Charles Z. Smith, former Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, stood with them.

My mother loves bringing people together for a good cause. Her latest project is empowering people to foster an intergenerational “gray-green” environmental movement (older Americans aspiring to create a green legacy for the future). We, the living, are all the seventh generation descendants of Chief Seattle.

What was it like growing up mixed-heritage?

My parents taught me the joy of community and that everyone is related. In the Tlingit culture, everyone is either a parent, brother/sister, uncle/aunt, or cousin. My extended family members in Seattle also of mixed heritage. I was raised learning and observing the traditions of all my great-grandparents — from Chinese/Lunar New Year and Simbang Gabi (traditional Filipino Christmas mass) to observing funeral traditions incorporating Tlingit, Japanese, Chinese and other customs, and more.

I’ll always appreciate how dedicated my father was to maintaining ties and uplifting both our Native and Asian American communities. My father used to joke about his mixed heritage (Native American, Filipino, Russian and Spanish). He’d brag about cooking Filipino “adobo” with Alaskan seal meat or he’d find a recipe to cook salmon in tin foil using heat from his car engine. Let’s say we definitely ate well, albeit differently, living in a family of good and resourceful cooks!

The late FANHS co-founder, “Uncle Fred” Cordova, always said: “Even if you have just one drop of ’bagoong’ (Filipino fermented shrimp paste), you are one of us.”

Even without blood quantum, if you married into the Filipino community or simply appreciated the culture, he warmly welcomed you. This fully resonates with me.
Long before I understood or could explain what intersectionality is, or what being multicultural means, I was living it. Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how different parts of your identity combine to create different experiences of discrimination or privileges.

Growing up, there was no shortage of ways to learn about my heritage in the Seattle area. I participated and attended events held by organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League, Filipino Youth Activities and our Seattle tribal chapter of Tlingit and Haida.

I used to complain to my parents that we were always going to something, not realizing then that it was a blessing to be a part of so many cultures.

How did you get your current position with the Wing Luke Museum?

I started working at the museum as the Director of Individual Giving in September 2021. Working at “the Wing” is a dream job for me, one that I never would have applied for if my mentor, Ray Li, hadn’t encouraged me to take a leap and apply. I’m the youngest person on the Wing’s executive leadership team.

Growing up, I have memories of visiting the Wing Luke when it was in its previous space in the Theater Off Jackson, on Seventh Avenue in the CID.

One day, after several months of frequent visits, my father took me to the Wing Luke and told me he had a surprise for me. He shared that he had contributed to their exhibit, “A Different Battle: Stories of Asian Pacific American Veterans.” He wanted me to spend time finding his submissions throughout the museum. I had become used to seeing names or people I recognized in the exhibits previously, but never my father’s name!

Finding my father’s Vietnam War artifacts, photos and testimonials throughout the installation was something I’ll never forget.

I specifically remember turning to him and saying, “Dad, you are part of history!”
He told me it was one of the best things I ever said to him.

I cannot stress enough what a gift my father’s oral history interviews and transcripts have been for me, especially now that I am getting older and am working in the community.

What is in your immediate future and what are your longer term dreams or goals?

Joining the Wing Luke is the first time I have worked in an organization that is majority BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) staff and leadership. It’s an incredible honor to bring my identity to work and uplift these untold stories.

Professionally, I want to improve the experiences of other BIPOC young professionals in the nonprofit space. Besides working at the Wing, I serve as a match coordinator for the Association for Fundraising Professionals mentoring program and often meet with aspiring/current nonprofit professionals of color. I am also a board member at Look, Listen and Learn, an early-learning, Black-led television show rooted in racial equity and radical joy.

Working in the CID, I know it has a long history of not having its voice heard during major infrastructure projects built in our neighborhood. It’s been incredible to see the current grassroots organizing that is happening. This marks the rise of our next generation following our beloved leader, “Uncle Bob,” and his incredible legacy, with young activists fighting neighborhood displacement and cultural erasure.

My husband, Ben Jach, and I are the proud “uncle and auntie” of many. Recently, one of my Filipino cousins sent me a video of her two-year-old daughter flipping through a children’s book I had given them about Filipino traditions from the Wing Luke Marketplace (gift shop). The little girl pointed at the characters with Filipino features just like her and she named the characters “Mommy, Auntie, Me.”

Moments like these fuel me to give back to new generations to thrive, nourished by deep cultural roots.

Mercedes Luna (center, middle row) with other Yonsei at annual Shima-Inouye Family reunion (2022).

 

 

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Elaine Ikoma Ko is the former Executive Director of the Hokubei Hochi Foundation, a nonprofit that helps The North American Post with projects and events. She is a member of the U.S.-Japan Council, an alumnus of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation (JALD) to Japan, and leads spring and autumn group tours to Japan.