Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), one of the fastest growing and most diverse populations in the United States, have been a fundamental part of American culture and identity throughout history. As May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is incredibly important to not only celebrate Asian Pacific individuals’ accomplishments, culture, and contributions to our society but also to understand the history behind this community.
I personally grew up without learning about many of the ghostwriters who played a role in forming this country. Notably left out during retellings of American past, AAPIs have fought for and established a presence both on and off the U.S. mainland. Yet, despite this exclusion, sometimes even erasure, from the narrative, the AAPI community has been here this whole time.
The Origins of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
The idea for commemorating Asian Pacific Americans and their ancestries first came from a Capitol Hill worker, Jeanie Jew, in the 1970s. Like many Asian Americans, her ancestors took part in forging America. Her great grandfather was a Chinese immigrant, one of thousands of other Chinese workers who were recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad to build the transcontinental railroad.
Despite their work and labor, Chinese immigrants faced individual and federal discrimination, from Chinatown riots and massacres, to racism stemming from the yellow peril, to the passage of exclusionary laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Jew’s great grandfather himself was a victim of anti-Chinese violence.
This personal history, alongside a lack of acknowledgment for Asian Pacific Americans, was a great motivation for Jew to take this notion to Congress. She advocated for commemoration alongside Congressman Frank Horton’s administrative assistant Ruby Moy.
Initially, the celebratory month was only about a week long, according to a bill proposed by Horton and California Representative Norman Mineta. In 1990, the week was expanded into a month under President George H.W. Bush’s administration. It officially and permanently became Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in 1992, thanks to legislation by Horton.
The month of May was specifically chosen to honor both the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to America, as well as the driving of the final golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad.
To reclaim Asian Pacific American voices, it’s important to be able to understand our own history. Beyond that, according to Horton, Jew believed “that all Americans must know about the contributions and histories of the Asian Pacific American experience in the United States.”
Historical Asian Pacific Presence
In integrating into America, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders alike faced numerous obstacles. Within the Pacific Islander community there is often an element of cultural or identity loss, due to the impacts of colonization and stereotyping indigenous lifestyles as “savage” or “backward.” American involvement in activities like military testing on the Pacific Islands has also been detrimental to the environment and indigenous lifestyles.
The first Asian immigrants to the mainland were also met with opposition and exploitation. For example, many of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the transcontinental railroad faced growing nativism and were notably left out of celebratory photos following the railroad’s completion. World War II led to the unjust internment of thousands of innocent Japanese citizens on the basis of their race. Laws like the Immigration Act of 1917 (or Asiatic Barred Zone Act) prohibited most Asians and Pacific Islanders from entering the United States.
Despite these attempts to stifle Asian and Pacific presence in America, AAPIs have made significant contributions to our society. Asians helped connect the coasts of America. Pacific Islanders have preserved their culture by protecting their artifacts and passing down stories. Since the 19th Century, AAPIs have served and fought in American armed forces. They have also been incredibly active in advocating for workers’ rights, and have established many of the cultural sites we now have the privilege of visiting.
There have also been many figures throughout the past and present who are furthering AAPI voices and preserving the stories of their heritage through art, activism and other ways.
In politics, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian to be elected to Congress in 1956. He immigrated to America to study at the University of California, eventually receiving his masters and doctorate in math. A strong spokesperson for politics, immigrants and South Asian perspectives, Saund advocated for the naturalization of those of Indian and Filipino descent through the Luce-Celler Act. He was elected as a judge and later ran for the House, where he served for almost three terms.
Patsy Mink became the first woman of color in Congress after being elected in 1964, running a grassroots campaign alongside her husband, John Mink. As a Congresswoman, she was an outspoken advocate for racial and gender equality, supported Title IX, and also brought the perspectives of her home state Hawaii to DC.
Norman Mineta was also a great trailblazer, becoming the first Asian American mayor of a major city, San Jose, and the first Asian American to serve in two presidential cabinets, under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Despite being sent to an internment camp as a child, Mineta continued to impact the American government, with one of his most major accomplishments being the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted reparations to Japanese citizens wrongly imprisoned during WWII.
In the art world, architect Maya Lin created the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at only 21 years-old. Despite the initial controversy over her minimalist design, the memorial is now an incredibly famous and emotionally evocative site. In the writing world, Connie Chung became the first Asian American anchorwoman on CBS Evening News, paving the way for Asian voices in journalism, a traditionally white-dominated industry. Authors Maxine Hong-Kingston Amy Tan have both written some of the most major cornerstones of Asian American literature, still studied in schools now.
In the film industry, Asian American and Pacific Islander voices and experiences are also growing. Taika Waititi became the first person of Maori descent to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award in the Oscars, dedicating his award to “all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories.”
Of course, there are so many more people who have made or are making contributions to a better America. This is only an abridged account of Asian Pacific American presence. There is an incredibly rich history behind every group of people making up this vibrant community, and it is always ongoing.
Relearning Our History
Ultimately, I spent most of my life without thinking of my heritage. I began to think it was too late to begin reconnecting. That changed when I interned at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), an organization based in Los Angeles’ Chinatown district. My first day there, I was tasked with organizing some artifacts from the archives.
Being able to touch the physical traces left by Chinese immigrants from generations earlier, from golden teeth to broken jade bracelets to wilting children’s shoes, I understood two things. Our presence has always been here, living on in the things our ancestors have left behind, living on in the generational fight to preserve and illuminate to our experiences. And it cannot be erased, as long as we keep telling our stories, and people listen.
So tell those stories. Be unapologetically proud. This month, and onwards, remember those who came before us, who fought hard to give us our platforms now.
Featured image by Manoj Kumar Kasirajan.