When Emilio Manuel Camu looks at Utah's Asian and Pacific Islander community, he's reminded of a Tagalog proverb his family has passed down through generations: "A broom is only as strong as it is tightly bound."

"If you've ever seen a Southeast-Asian broom made of sticks or in the islands, it's bound together, it's long and straight and you use it to sweep the dirt and the dust outside — it does its job," Camu said. "I think it's such a metaphor for how our communities are strong when we act together as one. Though we might look different, though we might think differently, we still come together to achieve our common purpose and our greater goal of making sure that Utah is the home for all."

Camu was among the community members and leaders who gathered at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Monday to celebrate the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May and the 130,000 Asians and Pacific Islanders who call Utah home. The month-long celebration started as a week-long event in 1978 before being expanded in 1990.

Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano said it's events like the kickoff that helped him feel seen while growing up in Sandy.

"I grew up kind of always feeling like an outsider and not really knowing where I belonged in the world and what it meant to be an Asian American, a Japanese American," Mano said. "Events like those that made me feel empowered, made me feel like I had a voice and made me feel like I had a community."

Mano and Camu both highlighted the decades of service many elders in the community have dedicated to elevating Asian and Pacific Islander culture and issues.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants. I'm grateful to see how much and how far our community has come from 150 years ago, a community which has been built and sustained by our elders to make sure that even today our community in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, Utah, is a home for all of us," Camu said, adding that younger generations are also making changes in the community.

Loimata Mauga displays a traditional “tatau,” a Samoan tattoo, with his family name during the kickoff of Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage month at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Loimata Mauga displays a traditional “tatau,” a Samoan tattoo, with his family name during the kickoff of Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage month at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Monday. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

One example is Loimata Mauga, a Southern Utah University football player and business student who was born and raised in Utah.

"The person that I am, I owe to my parents and the rich culture and heritage of my ancestors," said Mauga, who is Samoan and Maori. "May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but ... we should honor and recognize it every day of the year. Diversity is what makes Utah special to me. When we actually take the time to learn and celebrate the unique differences of all Utahns, it makes us better people. Today, I honor and celebrate all Asians and Pacific Islanders, specifically the first Maoris who settled in Utah back in 1884 and the Samoans in 1898."

University of Utah student Sariah Frost added that the month is an opportunity to celebrate "who we really are, not who others stereotype us to be" and remembering roots.

"This month stands as a reminder for us to appreciate and celebrate who we are and who we can be. It is a month where we highlight one another for honoring the sacrifices of our parents, our grandparents and our great grandparents by living up to our potential," she said. "May this month stand as a statement to all that we are capable of anything and everything, not in spite of our culture but because of it."