For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various Asian Americans and Pacific Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Our next profile is Sumi Sevilla Haru.
Sumi Haru was born in Orange, New Jersey, to Filipino immigrant parents, and she grew up in Colorado. When she was young, she dreamed of being an actress after meeting the cast and crew of the film "Soldier in the Rain" on a California vacation. When she arrived in Hollywood in the late 1960s, she started getting small roles in movies like "Krakatoa: East of Java" and "M*A*S*H" and TV shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." In 1968, she became a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
It wasn't until 1970 that she caught the activism bug. That year, Haru joined a picket line in Los Angeles, protesting the musical "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen," which cast white actors in Japanese roles. After that protest, she founded or got involved in numerous organizations that promoted the rights of actors. In 1981, as president of the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists, she protested the movie "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," which cast Peter Ustinov as the fictional Chinese detective. About the film, she said: "It isn't only dated and racist, it's insulting to our sense of logic and fair play. White actors, with their eyes taped, can portray us on the screen, but we as Asian-Pacifics are not permitted to portray them."
Between Haru's activism and her refusal to audition for roles that she believed stereotyped Asians, acting roles became a smaller part of her life and she became more active in SAG. She joined the union's board in the mid-1970s, and she co-founded SAG's Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee and negotiated for inclusion and more realistic representation of people of color in Hollywood.
In addition to serving on the SAG board for nearly 40 years, Haru also served in several leadership positions, including recording secretary and first vice president. In 1995, when SAG President Barry Gordon resigned to run for Congress, Haru became interim president of the union, the first woman of color to hold the position. That year, she also began a six-year term as an AFL-CIO national vice president, the first time an Asian American served on the federation's Executive Council.
In 2009, Haru was honored with SAG's Ralph Morgan Award for distinguished service. In 2012, she published her memoir, "Iron Lotus."
At the time of her passing, then-SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard said:
It is with great sadness that our SAG-AFTRA family says goodbye to Sumi Haru. Sumi notably represented SAG-AFTRA and its predecessor unions for decades on our local and national boards, and as Screen Actors Guild recording secretary and interim president. Sumi served our members through her lifelong dedication to actors, the labor movement and civil rights and equal employment. She did that with conviction, passion and grace. Our deepest condolences go out to her loved ones. We will miss her.