OBITUARY: Gina Hotta

Profile picture of Gina Hotta with microphone, photo by Derek Chung.

Gina Hotta, host of the Apex Express show on Pacifica radio’s KPFA, passed away from a heart attack at the age of 56 on Sept. 28. The longtime community activist collapsed while attending a meeting of the University Professional and Technical Employees to discuss the week’s walkout protest at UC Berkeley, where she worked as language lab recording studio supervisor.

The death of Hotta — one of the most prominent leaders in the progressive Asian Pacific Islander (API) community and recipient of many awards from organizations such as the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — sent shockwaves through the community. Since her passing, listeners and friends have flooded KPFA and the Internet with calls and blog posts in remembrance. A Sansei, Hotta grew up in El Cerrito, a Northern California suburb between Berkeley and Richmond, and became active in progressive API movements early on, particularly in the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions (CANE), immediately after college. During that era, she divided her time between work at Benihana restaurant, CANE activism and her jazz saxophone.

“Gina would come home from work, go to a meeting to stop Nihonmachi evictions, and then late at night begin running up and down the scales,” said one time roommate Eddie Wong, former executive director of what is currently the Center for Asian American Media and current Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation executive director. “She didn’t always hit all the notes, but she never stopped trying to get it right, make it mellow, and use the music to take us all somewhere else.

From Music to Media

“She had a great laugh like a rumbling chuckle that bursts into bloom,” he continued. “Whether in music or politics, Gina was like a flowing stream, calm, steady, and moving forward.”

Hotta quickly became known for her passionate devotion to a wide array of Asian Pacific Islander issues.

“If you were involved in Asian American community issues in the Bay Area, it would be virtually impossible that you wouldn’t have run into Gina at some point,” journalist Oliver Wang wrote on his blog. “She was seemingly everywhere; I can’t remember a community event I didn’t see her at.”

“She… did everything… organize workers in restaurants, fight evictions in the community, make radio documentaries, produce and promote concerts, recorded and mastered CD projects, wrote compositions and played the saxophone with passion and purpose,” added musician Francis Wong, who met Hotta through CANE. “Those of us in the music community have a great debt to Gina because of all she contributed both as a musician, commentator, producer, and a sister in the struggle.”

“She was always active in pulling people and resources together in presenting interesting and educational projects,” Asian American studies professor Bill Sato, who worked with her more than 30 years on the Tule Lake Pilgrimages, the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns, Redress and many other efforts, explained. “Volumes could be written about the many things she was a part of.”

Ultimately, Hotta would become best known for her role in the media, something she had shown an affinity for since college. According to Boku Kodama of nonprofit media organization Urban Voice, she was involved in video documentaries on the Asian American Movement as early as her first year in college.

Hotta spearheaded and hosted the “Inside/Eastside” program and later, Apex Express, both of which gave API communities a voice on FM airwaves. Groups like the Chinese Progressive Association, whose views often didn’t find a place in mainstream media, and musical movements like American Bhangra, found a home for the first time on her shows. Even on issues widely covered by the mainstream media, Hotta brought a more nuanced perspective to the table.

“We spend some time developing a story on the incarceration of U.S.-born 23-year-old Hamid Hayat who had allegedly attended a terror-training camp in northeast Pakistan. During that time, Gina told me about her own research and family experiences on the Japanese incarceration during WWII,” Saqib Mausoof, who appeared on the show frequently to  comment and to promote Pakistan’s political situation and promoting Third I South Asian Film Festival, said. “Her conviction for human rights and social justice were not just personified by her weekly show on Apex but also in her indefatigable passion in giving voice to the hyphened Asian American community.”

“[During the 2004 tsunami] Gina was interested not only in reports on the woeful conditions of survivors, but also, and importantly, looked to the future of the people of Aceh… which lies closest to the epicenter, was hit the most severely. … and what impacts the natural disaster might have on the decades old armed conflict in the area,” said Silvia Tiwon, a frequent guest on the program on human rights in East Timor and Indonesia. “She helped to bring a region long isolated from the international community… to the attention of the Asian American community and made a distant issue locally relevant.”
‘Consummate’ Journalist, Mentor

Hotta was also known for her continued connection to young people, and her role as a mentor.

“I was also always impressed how Gina came from an older generation of post-70s activists but had the open mind to stay current with new trends in culture and politics,” Wong said. “She was easily the most consummate AA journalist I knew… I’m not exaggerating when I say that Gina either formally or informally mentored an entire generation of AA journalists, myself included, who came of age in the Bay Area in the 1990s. The difference was that she probably outstripped us all in her passion and dedication; I can’t really think of another figure that comes close.”

“Gina… helped my small ideas about being on radio become big ideas, she was the first one to give me a mic and let me speak my mind,” said Weyland Southon, current host of Hard Knock Radio. “For someone Samoan Chinese, to have that opportunity in America, is rare.”

“When an elder passes away, it’s like a library burning down,” Kiwi, of Apex Express said. “With Gina this was definitely the case.”

The last week has seen many prominent members of the API community pay tribute to Hotta including performing-artist and writer Brenda Wong Aoki, who called into KPFA, as well as musician and composer Mark Izu, who played a musical piece he composed for the late Apex host.

“I knew for Gina for about 30 years from my work with Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors,” Oscar-winning Nikkei filmmaker Steven Okazaki said. “I found her to be tough, smart, well-informed, committed, positive, never cynical, quick to smile, with a wry sense of humor. She worked tirelessly for the things she believed in and played a pivotal role in the social and political awakening and maturation of the community. I took it for granted that she would always be there, connecting the Asian American community to the progressive community.”

“[Gina and Apex] allowed many community organizations and activists a vehicle to promote their events and issues, a vehicle that we hope will continue,” Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma said. “There used to be other such outlets, but only Apex Express remains as such a space in the ‘mainstream.’ She volunteered her time, because she truly believed in the causes that she helped to give wings… We are indebted to Gina for her years of contributions to the community, and to the field of journalism.

“We have lost a passionate leader, who will be sorely missed,” Taguma added. “I’m saddened by the great loss for Asian America, a voice silenced much too soon.”

I am very heartbroken over the news,” rapper Shing02 said. “I will always remember Gina for her compassionate work and witty personality. I hope that I can do my part by staying on the path of supporting those in need, giving a voice to those who are searching for a platform.”

While there was no shortage of support from Hotta’s friends and colleagues, many who felt a connection with her had never met her at all.

“I never got to meet her, but I always felt like she was at my table breaking it down to me,” said a caller who identified himself as Toussaint said. “I was shocked. We lost a warrior, but we gained a powerful ancestor.”

‘Fighter and a Visionary’

Apex Express plans to keep Hotta’s vision alive.

“Gina was a fighter and a visionary more than anyone I know,” said her friend and colleague Jason Jong. “From Southeast Asian graffiti artists to Pacific Islander grandparents, she was a lynchpin and… she really got to the core of community cultural and activist issues.

“Her vision her and her activism is the legacy she leaves behind for us,” he continued.

Hotta is survived by her husband, Michael Yoshida, KPFA’s operations director.

Public Memorial

A public celebration of the life of Gina Hotta will be held on Sunday, Oct. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 9th Street, in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza with a reception following. For more info, e-mail Apex@kpfa.org, call (510) 848-6767 x 464, or visit www.apexexpress.org to post comments or thoughts.

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