Natasha Rodriguez

Natasha Rodriguez is a project manager with the UC College of Nursing SHARE (Storytelling for Health Advocacy, Research and Education) Lab, an initiative launched by Dr. Minjin Kim to collect stories from Asian Americans in the Cincinnati area on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community, and also a project manager for Cincinnati CARE (Civic Action for Refugee Empowerment). She currently lives in Cincinnati and was born in Corbin, Kentucky to first-generation immigrants from the Philippines.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Natasha, Minjin and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 2, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.

RC: So how did you connect with the work you’re doing now?

NR: When I was doing my master’s of public health [MPH] in the University of Cincinnati, I was part of one of the extracurricular organizations, and they focused on talking about social justice and how it relates to public health. And I spoke with one of the advisors of that organization, and she asked if I was interested in talking about Asian health disparities. Her name is Dr. Michelle Burbage. She was the one who connected me with Dr. [Minjin] Kim. So we talked about what we wanted to do for this presentation, and what kind of topic we wanted to discuss. She introduced me to some of the storytelling research that she’s done, especially as a result of COVID-19 and the pandemic and how that affected the Asian community. So, we ended up presenting — I talked a little bit about the history of Asian hate, and Asian hate crimes in the U.S., and then she continued the rest of the conversation by talking about some of her more modern research.

RC: Can you tell me when the research was happening about the racism storytelling process?

NR: Oh, so that wasn’t until after — that was how we first met, near the end of my program. She reached back out to me and asked me if I wanted to help her as a volunteer. At first, I was just working, we were trying to figure out the logistics and how we wanted to set up the interviews. Then we started recruiting. But it was me, Dr. Kim, and two other colleagues, a person who was an international student, and then another person who was in the Latinx community. We decided if we’re going to do storytelling, with the connections that we have here, we’re going to talk to international students. We’re going to talk to Latinos and Latinx Americans, and we’re going to talk to Asian Americans because that’s the ethnicities that made up our small team. That was what we were used to and so that’s the population we ended up going for.

RC: So, is that when you started the storytelling interviewing?

NR: Yes, we started I think about a year ago in 2022.

RC: I’m interested in macro scale. You probably don’t have a lot of detailed information in this story, but I’m interested in some of the learnings that you learned from Cincinnati area Asian Americans.

NR: We had a bit of a range of participants. One of the most poignant stories that we found was from an Asian adoptee. She was born in Wuhan, China, and then was adopted as an infant to a family in a rural part of Ohio. From the get-go, she grew up thinking that she was white and that she just looked different. She didn’t have any Asian people around her. So, a lot of the discrimination that she received growing up was because of that ignorance. And so there were a lot of racial stereotypes involved, and her not really understanding what her identity was until she came to college here in Cincinnati, and was able to start connecting to other people who are not just Asian Americans, but also Asian American adoptees. That’s where she started to explore more about her culture and started realizing some of the microaggressions that she encountered in the past she didn’t even recognize at first. 

I think that’s one of the themes that we’ve noticed for Asian Americans who grew up in less diverse communities: they don’t recognize some of the microaggressions that they have dealt with, growing up throughout their childhood until they enter an environment like a university with higher diversity, where they finally start taking things like sociology courses and having open conversations about race and what it means to be of a different race in America. Then they start to recognize, “Oh, these are things that I’ve experienced, I just didn’t even notice them. Because I’d never known this was a thing before. All these microaggressions bothered me before, but I never understood why I thought I just needed to get over it.” A lot of people talked about how they ended up having to grow a thick skin, because they didn’t really have any other people that they could relate to until they got older and were able to expand their environment.

RC: So the study was how many people?

NR: I think we had a total of around 20 participants, around a third of them being Asian Americans. But there was some crossover because some of the Asian people that we interviewed also identified as international students — so more Asian, less Asian American. Then there were also slight differences in the experiences of types of Asians, [like] Eastern Asians versus South Asians.

RC: I know it was during the pandemic, and also about being Asian in a place like Cincinnati, so were there any commonalities in their responses that relate to being here specifically?

NR: Across the board, there was a fear. When Asian hate crimes were at their highest, around the nation, we saw a lot of fear. But in particular, a lot of the participants that we interviewed are younger. They have a lot of access to social media and are on social media every day. They would see things on their feeds constantly that would terrify them of people who are being assaulted simply for looking Asian. There were stories that were coming up of things that were happening in Dayton, which is only an hour or so away from Cincinnati, where entire businesses were being burned down because they were Asian-owned. We received a lot of sad feelings of just frustration: “I don’t want my parents going out and getting groceries because I don’t know if something’s going to happen to them,” or for the university students, things like, “I don’t want to leave them alone and go off to school because I don’t want them to encounter any violence.” But during that time, both with hate crimes and just the nature of the pandemic, there was just so much uncertainty, and that was the root cause of all of this fear.

RC: Stepping away from the research reports, how were you raised? How do you self-identify?

NR: My parents are first-generation immigrants from the Philippines. They moved here in 1998, I believe. And they moved to Corbin, Kentucky, which is a very small town in southeast Kentucky. I was born in Corbin, Kentucky. We spent the first four years in Corbin, Kentucky. My dad had a job in one of the hospitals there. And surprisingly, we ended up finding other Filipino doctors that were also immigrants, that had moved specifically to Corbin, Kentucky. So, we built a community there of other Filipinos and Filipino families. And even to this day, we will go back to visit Corbin to see them. We’ll spend their birthdays and maybe sometimes holidays [with them]. But we go back regularly to see them and keep each other updated.

RC: But for you, even though you’re born in a sort of rural area, you were raised in a community where your heritage was celebrated?

NR: I think I was really lucky, and my family was very open about celebrating the fact that we were Filipino. When I moved to Northern Kentucky, that’s when I stepped away from that Filipino environment. Maybe this is just completely anecdotal, but I feel amongst the Filipinos that I know, regardless of where you move to, you find ways to look for and find other Filipinos to create your little community. But when we had moved to Northern Kentucky closer to Cincinnati, we found a different group of Filipino families that we could become close to. The difference there is that we lived physically farther apart from each other because the range was from the south of Northern Kentucky all the way up to southern Ohio. So, we were seeing each other less frequently. On a day-to-day basis, I wasn’t really experiencing much of that Filipino heritage, but I was still brought up with that during those times that I could see them. But on a day to day, I was surrounded by white people.

RC: What does your unique experience give to other people? What does the Midwest gain from our unique upbringing being here? 

NR: So growing up, I went to a really small, private Catholic school. And I mean, the demographic for those types of school systems are largely white students. So, almost all of my childhood, I didn’t have many people my age, at least, that were Filipino or Asian and celebrated their diversity. I talked about how we had Filipino family and friends, but they’re all my parents’ age. I didn’t have that many people that were my own age until I came to UC [University of Cincinnati] to study for undergrad, when I was finally able to meet other Asians. And the first student organization I actually joined was the Korean culture and dance club because I really liked Korean music. Then from that, I met people in the Vietnamese Student Association. And so, for the first two years, I would attend the Vietnamese Student Association events, because there was no Filipino group at the time. So, that’s when in 2017, a group of three to four other students and I decided there are a lot of Filipinos at UC: “Let’s create an org.” And so we founded the Pinoy American Student Organization, which is still alive to this day, I’m very proud to say. But that was in 2017. So we recognize there are a lot of Asians at UC, and in Cincinnati. There are a lot of Asian orgs that work very closely with each other, even Asian sororities and fraternities. There were Filipinos around, just in other organizations. So, we decided we wanted to create our own org so that we could be celebrating and practicing with our own culture and learning more about our own traditions. I’m very proud of how far they’ve come. They have a new annual event that just happened this weekend. I keep seeing them on my social media that warms my heart every time. 

RC: What’s next for you guys? Are you continuing and finishing up a project?

Minjin Kim (MK): Yes. So, I initiated that storytelling project when I was a postdoc at UMass Medical School in 2020. I receive emails and calls from my former students experiencing bullying [from the] coronavirus, and [people said,]  “Go back to your country.” I kept that message, and even my colleagues were telling me about the stories of their students. So, I found the urge to do something. 

I talked to the department chair at UMass Medical School, and she supported the idea of doing the storytelling work and increasing the awareness about their experiences. That’s how we started. We started to reach out to the individuals, students and Asian American community leaders to hear about their experiences. We captured that and posted on social media. We received very positive comments on the videos. People said they’re encouraged by their stories and they were encouraged to share their own stories. So what I got [at that time] is shared on here — it’s all here. You know, that’s the power of story: when one person starts sharing stories, others find encouragement to share their own story. 

Then I moved to Cincinnati in 2020 and then started to reinitiate that project. And I found that passion, and we worked together on this to understand [people’s experiences]. I thought that their experience might be different than the people in Massachusetts, but they’re similar, just different in that they’re less diverse. When there are more people who are willing to voice out, they have more free will to share their stories. But here, I found there are less people who are willing to share their stories compared to MA — maybe because diversity-wise, the population is very different here. In Cincinnati, this area is mostly white and Black. So, maybe that’s the reason there’s not many support systems for them to speak up more. So these are barriers. But I just wanted to add to what Natasha was saying.

RC: That’s really useful background.

NR: Well, I think it’s interesting to see her point of view from Cincinnati to Massachusetts. I don’t have that experience with a bigger city like [in] Massachusetts. So, I don’t really know what it’s like to be in a place with higher diversity. But I do think that when it comes to Cincinnati, specifically, if you are Asian American and you live in Cincinnati, if you look hard enough and you meet one person that’s involved in the community, you will meet every other person that’s involved in the community. We are very, very interwoven, interconnected. That’s one of the great things about this city, is that people who are in the Philippines who identify as Filipino, see themselves as Asian American. And someone who is Chinese American, someone who is Indian American, someone who is Vietnamese American, we share that Asian American pride in Cincinnati regardless of which specific race it is, and I think that’s one of the beauties of Cincinnati.