Reflecting on Asian American & Pacific Islander Influence in Las Vegas

Chinatown Plaza has been a cultural and business center for Las Vegans of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Special Collections & Archives)

Vanessa “Nessa” Concepcion is expanding on the history of Southern Nevada through her work on a new Asian American and Pacific Islander oral history project from UNLV Libraries.

“Being able to listen to people’s personal stories and experiences is what makes this project so special. I really can’t wait to learn more about these often silenced voices, and ask questions that teach us all something new about the AAPI community in Las Vegas,” said the sophomore computer science major and Asian American studies minor.

Concepcion, who is a first-generation Filipinx-American, is one of four UNLV AAPI students working on “Reflections: The Las Vegas Asian American & Pacific Islander Oral History Project.” The three-year, $300,000 project is being spearheaded by the UNLV Oral History Research Center under the direction of Claytee White, with oral historian Stefani Evans serving as the project coordinator. 

“Since the early days of Las Vegas, AAPI residents have greatly influenced the growth and progress of businesses, infrastructure, politics, and cultural life in Southern Nevada. By collecting and preserving these oral histories, we ensure our region's AAPI residents are reflected in our collections and that present and future generations can learn and study more about their achievements, aspirations, and experiences,” said White.

Cultural Connection

Concepcion was hired to work on the project during the fall semester with fellow students Kristel Peralta, a freshman psychology major; Cecilia Winchell, a sophomore philosophy major and public policy minor; and Ayrton Yamaguchi, a freshman jazz and commercial music major. 

“I chose to become involved in the Reflections project because I wanted to explore my heritage more and hear what connects the Pacific islands together and what makes these cultures so similar,” said Yamaguchi, who identifies as Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Spanish, and Portuguese. 

It’s a motivation echoed by all the students working on Reflections - learning more about their culture and how to connect with it. 

“Reflections gives me the opportunity to better understand the community that I am a part of. Culture and background are important in discovering who you are and what you can do for other people,” said Peralta, who identifies as Asian (Filipino). 

For Winchell, who identifies as half-Chinese and half-white, Reflections is also an opportunity to dig deeper into efforts to preserve the history and stories of one of the fastest growing AAPI communities in the country. The AAPI community currently represents more than 10 percent of the total population of Clark County.

“We are capturing the diversity that exists within the AAPI community. Often, the community is treated as a kind of monolith when it’s not. There is an incredible amount of diversity within this community, and what better way to prove it than to interview the people themselves,” she said.

UNLV students participating in the Reflections oral history project include Vanessa Concepcion (left); Aryton Yamaguchi (top); Kristel Marie Peralta (right); and Cecilia Winchell (bottom)

A Diverse Group

During the course of the project, the students, along with White and Evans will conduct at least 175 interviews with AAPI residents from across the Las Vegas Valley. Oral histories are collected with people from all walks of life, including executives, musicians, housekeepers, Strip-workers, restaurateurs, store owners, and more.

“Every person we interview inspires me in one way or another. Seeing different ways of life and the many outcomes to get there opens your mind to see bigger pictures. I hope to gain a better understanding of the community that I am interviewing, and eventually use this knowledge to make my own impact in the future,” said Peralta.

White and Evans have trained the students on how to conduct oral histories, either virtually or in a socially distant environment. After conducting interviews, the students work on editing and transcribing the interviews before they are bound, digitized, and added to the Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives. 

“AAPI history is an integral part of the Las Vegas Community and I hope this project displays the beauty of the diversity in Las Vegas,” said Yamaguchi.

Enthusiastic Support

The AAPI community in Southern Nevada has shown enthusiasm for the project through financial contributions, nominating potential narrators to share their oral enriched by a 16-member community advisory board made up of AAPI business, academic, and community leaders, and a four-member fundraising advisory board. 

The Commission for the Las Vegas Centennial provided the initial $50,000 to launch the project, with other community members and business leaders joining the effort. The Theodore and Doris Lee Family Foundation recently donated $15,000 for Reflections, and MGM Resorts International has pledged $25,000. Additional donations from the Louis F. Laporta Family Trust, the Asian Community Development Council, and Radha Chanderraj are also funding the first year of the project.

While the Libraries is still seeking donations to fully fund the second and third years of the project, the initial funds have enabled the students to begin collecting oral histories. And to dream big about who they might be able to interview. 

“My dream interview would probably be with Jackie Chan. He revolutionized the way the AAPI community are portrayed in media and just seems like an overall cool person,” said Winchell.

For Concepcion, working on Reflections comes back to listening to the stories of her community and being able to share them with future generations. 

“I hope educators can use these stories we gather to build upon their courses and research, and that curious minds like myself and my fellow students who want to know more about our heritage will read and learn from the histories we have collected,” she said. 

Learn more about Reflections: The Las Vegas Asian American & Pacific Islander Oral History Project.

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