The Asian Family Center in Albuquerque works to help immigrants overcome language barriers so they can access things like health care and education. Advocates there also say the stereotype that Asians are model immigrants can translate to a lack of services for the population.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon at the Japanese Kitchen, a sushi bar and Teppanyaki restaurant where chefs prepare the food on a tabletop grill. Employees ate their midday meals before service began again.
They also use these off hours to fold paper pandas, roses and dinosaurs. Bar Manager Setsuko Rosado gestured to a row of intricate globes hanging behind the register. "I have to have 36 paper to create one small origami," she said. "So I have a lot of helper."
She returned to what she was creating, which was far more intricate and involved than the common paper crane, though those were there, too. She has the most origami knowledge at the restaurant and teaches other staff members how to fold some of the more beginner pieces.
"I am born and raised in Japan," she said. "So we start at like a young age. Like school kids. We start with a paper crane. Then on and on. Every time we have a chance. We make a lot of origami when I was young."
Her student Kum Chu Tillery is head hostess and has been working at the Japanese Kitchen for 18 years. "It is a challenge," she said. "The first time I learned, it took one week to learn one animal like this."
They were giving them to kids for free, but customers insisted on paying. Then, after the tsunami struck Japan in 2011, employees began sending those dollars to relief efforts. Eventually, they shifted the proceeds to New Mexico’s Asian Family Center.
"It’s amazing, you know, how the Japanese Kitchen and the staff come up with the idea," said Huong Nguyen, an outreach and education specialist for New Mexico’s Asian Family Center. It’s the only provider in the state that customizes its services for a diverse cross-section of Asian ethnicities.
"I think since we are a very small community—we don’t see Chinatown, or Little Tokyo or Little Saigon here—that’s why the services that tailor to our community is almost none," she said. "The lack of services—that’s huge."
Asians make up less than 2 percent of the population in New Mexico. Federal agencies are required to provide access for people with limited English proficiency, but the Family Center finds this is rarely the case in this state. Language barriers affect immigrants’ ability to get health care, food and housing assistance, and education.
"First of all our community don’t know the services that are available for them, and second of all, they don’t know how to access it," she said.
Their work began in nearly a decade ago as a way to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, Executive Director Sherry Spitzer said, but the mission expanded.
"There’s this model minority myth of the Asian community," she said. "And because of that, it can make it very difficult for the Asian community to come forward to get help or for there to be resources available to them."
The pervasive stereotype that Asian people don’t’ have problems, Spitzer said, makes it a challenge for people to get help.
"We oftentimes have different agencies and different government groups, the police, say that the Asian community doesn’t have any needs," she said. "They say, 'We’ve never had anybody come forward who needs help.' We know, first of all, that’s not true, that they do come forward."
Again, it’s usually a language issue, she said.
"We know that the reason why people don’t come forward as much as they would need to is because they don’t feel the programs are accessible," she said. "Because when they try to, they can’t speak to anyone."
Japanese Kitchen origami artists Rosado and Tillery will continue doing their part to aid in cultural exchange, on their breaks, one shiny, paper rose at a time. "We’re helping people," Tillery said. "We’re having fun with this. "
And in just four years, they’ve raised $14,000 for the Asian Family Center.
The Festival of Asian Cultures happens on Saturday, May 9, between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Park. KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Kum Chu Tillery's name. The error was made in reporting.