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UNLV Preserves Local Asian And Pacific Islander Histories

Aaron Mayes/UNLV Special Collections & Archives

The Asian and Pacific Islander population in Nevada is growing. 

Currently, Nevada has about the fifth largest population of Asian Americans. That’s 238,000 people or 8 percent of the state’s population. For comparison, the national average is 5.6 percent per state. 

In Clark County, one in 10 people is of Asian descent. Their political and economic influence is growing. 

And that population is getting a closer look by  UNLV

UNLV’s Oral History Research Center has been preserving the stories of the Asian American Pacific Islander community with a project called  Reflections

The three-year, $300,000 project plans to collect more than 175 interviews. Leading the project is Claytee White, the director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center. 

“We have communities that we don’t know about and so we have a list of all of those communities, and we’re getting to them as rapidly as we possibly can,” she explained.

White said they are trying to prevent the loss of the great stories within our community. She said we don’t know enough about our neighbors, but this project is trying to correct that and share those stories with everyone.

The Oral History Research Center hires students to help collect these stories. Researchers with the center train the students about the basics of the cultures and histories of Asia and the Pacific Islands then helps them conduct interviews.

Kristel Peralta is a UNLV student assistant on the project. She found it through a job listing at the library. She was drawn to it because she wanted to know more about her culture and community.

“Little did I know that I was going to be so invested and so excited for it,” she said.

Peralta’s family is from the Philippines. She and her brother were born in Macau, but they immigrated to the United States when she was about a year old.

She said she had to pry information about her family and background from her parents. Peralta believes she is not the only one who finds it difficult to get information about her heritage from her parents.

“I feel like a lot of my family and friends don’t ask the questions that need to be asked in order to understand where we come from,” she said.

She believes the project will give people a chance to learn more about their neighbors, their families and themselves.

Cecilia Winchell is also working on the project as a student assistant. Her mother is Chinese, and her father is white. She lived for a time in Missouri, which she found difficult.

“I knew almost no one that looked like me, and it was something that made me feel really insecure for the longest time because I would look around me and see all these white people, and I would look in the mirror and see myself and it would make me feel insecure and like an outsider,” she said.

When she was in middle school, she moved to Las Vegas and found the diversity of the city refreshing and helped build her confidence.

“Especially through this project, which has been amazing, I’ve been able to meet so many more people who have come through a similar background as me and it’s really just made me feel a part of the community,” she said.

Winchell said the people they are talking to for the project are often a little older than the students, but they are still finding common threads and themes, like the importance of family and the influence of parents on where people end up in their lives.

There are also common themes of identity. People are American but don’t ‘look American.’ There is also the common experience of leaving family in Asia behind knowing they would likely never see them again.

“I hope people can become more compassionate throughout this project,” Winchell said.

She said after talking to people for the project she came to understand that everyone has a story. They may not be big and dramatic, but everyone goes through something valuable that gives life meaning.

“It’s why people should be more understanding and more compassionate and more patient with each other,” she said, “And that’s what we hope people will learn when they hear these stories and hear how much more there is to a person than what they look like.”

Peralta hopes people start to understand that we are more alike than different.

“I hope that people learn how to be more empathic and open-minded,” she said, “There is so much to learn from every interview we do, and if people have the patience and time to listen, they will come out as better people and more understanding people”

White said the interviews from the project will be available for the general public and researchers to access and learn from.

White has been working on the university’s oral history project for many years. She started by cataloging some stories from the city’s first white residents. From there, she has interviewed all kinds of people who make up the diverse fabric of the Southern Nevada community.

“It has made me a better person,” she said, “It has taught me the importance of history. The importance of someone else’s culture.”

The research center usually holds public events around these oral history projects, but the pandemic forced those events to be put on hold. White said very soon they’ll return to holding events that will feature the diverse fashion, food and more in the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

Claytee White, Director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center; Cecilia Winchell, UNLV Student Assistant; Kristel Peralta, UNLV Student Assistant 

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.