With race and hate crimes on the rise, Ileto family calls on Asian American inclusion in conversations
AUGUST 10, 1999 was a hot day. It was a Tuesday, and Filipino American letter carrier for the United States Postal Service (USPS) Joseph Ileto — who originally had the day off — was called into work to cover for a fellow mailman.
While on route delivering the mail in Chatsworth, at the nearby North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, a white supremacist walked into the center’s lobby and fired 70 shots using a semi-automatic weapon, wounding five people including three children.
The shooter, Buford O. Furrow of Lacey, Washington, then fled the scene. He made his way to where Ileto was a few miles away and approached the mailman to ask him to mail a letter for him. As Ileto agreed, Furrow took out a handgun and fatally shot Ileto nine times in a murder that Furrow later confessed was racially-motivated. (He said he thought Ileto was Latino or Asian.)
Furrow later turned himself into the FBI in Las Vegas and is serving two life terms plus 110 years without the possibility of parole. The proceeding’s judge told Furrow, “Your actions were a stark and brutal reminder that bigotry is alive, if not well.”
The aftermath of the shooting was a wake-up call to many state and federal lawmakers and signaled a national push for gun control. Additionally, the shooting prompted the need to combat anti-Semitism and racism.
But what gets left out of the narrative is the one casualty of the shooting. At the time of his death, Ileto was 39 years old. He was the eldest son of Lilian Ileto, and while working for the USPS, he was also studying engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.
Continuing the conversation
And for the last 20 years, the family has sought to cultivate a legacy for their fallen brother to make sure his untimely death didn’t go in vain.
The Ileto family has spent the last two decades ensuring that the murder of their son, kuya and tito never be forgotten, building his legacy into something greater than themselves. They’ve attended marches, spoken at schools, met with numerous advocacy groups and lobbied to lawmakers all in the name of common-sense gun control and combating racism.
And as the amplification of reactionary rhetoric on race and immigration continues to permeate, the family’s mission to push for the Asian American community to stand up against racism and to be a part of the conversation has never been more relevant.
“When my brother was killed, the description of him was just a postal worker, not of his heritage and the main reason he was killed was the color of his skin, and I just thought that was an insult to him as a Filipino American and to our family as Asian Americans and to our whole community,” Ismael “Ish” Ileto, Ileto’s younger brother, told the Asian Journal on Friday, August 9.
The younger Ileto and other family members were present at a commemorative dinner for the late postal worker hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, which has provided the Iletos legal and emotional support since 1999.
Shortly after Joseph Ileto’s death, the Ileto family attended an event hosted at the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills for the signing of five new state gun control bills. In attendance of this highly-publicized event were then-Governor Gray Davis, police chiefs from every county in California and numerous state and city officials.
State officials talked about what happened and the bills they’re signing into law and that if these laws had been put in place earlier, it could have made a difference at the North Valley Jewish Center, full stop. Nothing about Ileto, the only casualty in the incident, was mentioned. Not even his name.
“We were invited to this event and we had front row seats, and the Jewish American representatives were on the other side of the aisle but they only mentioned what might have happened with the Jewish community center,” Ismael Ileto said.
And as the event concluded and people were filing out of the auditorium, Gov. Davis quickly mentioned, “Oh, by the way, the Ileto family is here.” And that’s not the first time that’s happened. Ismael Ileto recalled an event at the Museum of Tolerance, a live radio-broadcasted discussion on the Aug. 10 shooting and racially-charged violence.
“I wasn’t up there [on the stage], and it was only the Jewish community representatives. They started talking about the shooting again, and nothing about my brother. And they all know that this is connected to Joseph who was killed by the same guy, yet there was no mention [of Joseph],” Ismael Ileto said.
He added, “Here we are and getting killed and harmed and yet the mainstream media is not recognizing who we are. It gave us a feeling of we don’t count. That’s what fuels us to speak out.”
But as Filipino Americans, as soon as they began speaking out, attending gun control marches and vocalizing the need to end racially-charged violence, the Iletos found themselves in a precarious situation. They soon started receiving hate mail and death threats from white supremacists, causing the family to move homes.
For years, they lamented the erasure of the Filipino American and Asian American community when it comes to issues of race and hate crimes, both of which are typically associated with other communities like blacks, Arabs and Latinos.
Pushing for Asian American and Filipino American inclusion on these issues has, to this day, been proven to be difficult, but that hasn’t slowed the family down yet.
“But then I was told that my skin wasn’t dark enough to know what racism is, but yet we had a white supremacist in our life telling us to go back home because we took up their schools and took up their jobs and we don’t belong here, so it made us want to speak out more,” Deena Ileto, Ismael’s wife, said.
“You know, our families teach us, ‘don’t say anything, don’t speak because we’ll look like troublemakers and they’ll retaliate or do something against us,’ but it made us want to work harder to reach out to the communities and students to build a stronger and safer community for everyone because it’s happening more and more,” she said.
The family has bestowed an acronymically-named title for their cause and fight for Joseph Ileto’s legacy: Join Our Struggle, Educate and Prevent Hate, Instill Love, Equality and Tolerance for Others.
Ileto’s 20-year anniversary of his death comes a week after a 21-year-old white nationalist targeting Mexicans shot and killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Since Ileto’s tragic murder, there have been countless incidents of gun violence, mass shootings and hate crimes that have propped up, targeting a wide variety of different communities.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2017 a majority of reported hate crimes were motivated by race, ethnicity and ancestry of the targets (58%). And the number of those crimes increased — in 2016, there were 3,489 incidents and in 2017, there were 4,131.
Speaking at the dinner, the mother, Lilian Ileto, shared the lifelong struggle of losing her son and the pain and fear it’s brought to her and the Ileto family. But she also noted the necessity to keep up the fight against gun violence and hate crimes, and encouraged the Asian American community to stand in solidarity with them.
“Although our family lost our beloved Joseph to a senseless hate crime, we do not want any other family to suffer a similar loss,” the mother said. “That is why every year, on the anniversary of his death, we speak out to remind the community that we all must work together to overcome prejudice, intolerance and hate.” (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)