Center for Community Engagement

Living at the I-Hotel—An Interview with Megan Zapanta ‘10

During her time at Amherst, Megan Zapanta ’10 played on the rugby team, wrote an honors thesis, participated in the Vagina Monologues, tutored at the Jones Library, and volunteered with a labor union.

She did not, however, act like an (ancient) Egyptian.

Allow me to explain. The members of this ancient civilization believed that the heart, not the brain, was the center of human thought. If Zapanta had been an ancient Egyptian, she might have never finished her thesis, which required her to pick the brains of many people involved in the 1970s San Francisco’s International Hotel movement. In her work “Place, Politics, and Memory of Radical Activism: Rebuilding the Legacy of San Francisco’s International Hotel,” Zapanta recounts the memories of many people united by a piece of revived history.

In 1968, I-Hotel tenants comprised primarily of Filipinos and Chinese residents faced eviction from the Milton Meyer Corporation. In response, the Manilatown-Chinatown community mounted a nine-year attempt to stop the evictions. Despite being unsuccessful in their efforts, these activists created a space for collective organizing, democratic dialogue, and intergenerational interactions—a legacy that endures to this day.

During the research process, Zapanta met with many of the artists, historians, community organizers, and activists inspired by the I-Hotel movement. Keeping with the complexity of the past movement, Zapanta’s interviewees tackled a plethora of present issues, including senior citizens’ rights, low-incoming housing, and cultural preservation. In particular, a man named Emil de Guzman stuck out in Zapanta’s mind. Not only was his work in the International Hotel Tenants Association impressive, but so was his eagerness to meet with Megan. After emailing him that day, de Guzman welcomed Zapanta into his home later that night. When I asked about her impressions, Zapanta remarks, “He really took time out of his life to tell me about his story, because it meant so much to him.”

Talking to Zapanta, one gets the sense that her work, too, means so much. After honing her interview skills as the editor of the high school newspaper, Zapanta came to Amherst “pretty much convinced” of a career in journalism. Yet after taking the community-based learning course “Reading, Writing, and Teaching” in her freshman year, she experienced a change of heart. Taught by Professor Cobham-Sander, the course challenges students to think critically about the community around them as they take on the role of teaching assistant at Holyoke High School. The course convinced Zapanta that she wanted to become a Black Studies major and pursue activism in college.

Nevertheless, building the bridge between the activist and student identity can be difficult. Sometimes, Zapanta says, “it’s easy to dismiss doing activist work as doing something on the side. Particularly in college, it’s easy to say ‘my work comes first, and this other stuff is extracurricular and not very important.’” Going through the motions is not enough; activism “should have some ideology behind it.” Otherwise, it turns into “an act that you are doing mindlessly.” For Zapanta, her scholarly pursuits were never far from the local community. Ultimately, being a student-activist means “studying to be a better activist, and being an activist to be a better scholar.”

Like the Egyptian god Osiris, who was resurrected after his death, the I-Hotel re-emerged in 2005 thanks to the cumulative efforts of grassroots organizations. Today, programming for the tenants and the community keep alive the memory of past struggles as well as carving out new, uncharted territory for future movements. Through this complex history that defies generalization, the I-Hotel is no longer merely a building or a physical place but instead transcends class, racial, and generational lines.

As for Zapanta, she hopes to find a job related to social justice, community organizing, or environmental studies. She plans to attend graduate school, no doubt to continue her mission always to be aware of the work she intends to do.

Sounds like a plan that comes from the heart. Undoubtedly, the ancient Egyptians would approve.

Tracy Huang ’11 enjoys practicing Tae Kwon Do and Karate, reading small-print magazines, blowing bubbles, and pretending that she’s in glee club.  She will gladly respond to your questions and comments at yhuang11[at]amherst[dot]edu