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  • Writer's pictureAlexis R. Collins

Tears, Trailblazer Status, and Triumph: The Rich History of the AAPI Community

Updated: May 26, 2021

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is full of rich celebratory traditions and an intricate history. Although some people treat those who hail from the East, the Southeast, the Indian subcontinent, and the Pacific Islands like a monolith, each ethnic group has distinct languages, cultures, customs, nationalities, and practices. Celebrated in the month of May, we wanted to commemorate the beauty and significance of AAPI Heritage month by underlining the amazing contributions the AAPI community has made throughout the U.S., along with their generational marginalization, which stands amid the backdrop of the sharp uptick in anti-Asian discrimination and targeted violence since the COVID-19 pandemic. We also wanted to discuss some ways that you can honor AAPI Heritage month in your community!

Before we delve into the remarkable history and accomplishments of the AAPI community, let’s explore the backstory behind the month. Similar to other months that are dedicated to different races and ethnicities in this country, AAPI Heritage month originated with Congress. In 1978, Representative Frank Horton of New York introduced House Joint resolution 1007, proposing that a week, which includes the seventh and tenth of the month, be designated to observe the AAPI citizens. After its passage through both congressional chambers, the legislation was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978, with the original language of the bill amended and directed at the President to issue a “seven-day period” proclamation beginning May 4, 1979. For over a decade, presidents continued these ordinances for Asian/pacific American Heritage Week until 1990, when they expanded the week-long observance into a month, making this amount of time permanent in 1992.

The month of May was chosen as AAPI Heritage month to memorialize the first Japanese immigrants, who arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the competition of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The railroad’s construction is meaningful because the tens of thousands of workers who tirelessly expended their collective time, energy, and labor into that project were Chinese immigrants. The symbology behind this month is of immense importance to the people who are members of those communities. The month has now grown to encompass an entire population of people who possess Asian and Pacific Islander descent, and is marked with a diverse array or programs, ceremonies, and festivities.

Surprisingly, Asian American and Pacific Islander history remains relatively unknown to many, including AAPI people themselves. Crucial information on influential Asian American figures is scarcely taught in classrooms, and when it is, schools condense this nuanced timeline to a few events, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the creation of Japanese internment camps during World War II. That compacted version only scratches the surface of the nearly 50 other ethnic groups that make up the fastest-growing racial and ethnic populace this country has witnessed in the first two decades of the 21st century. The Asian population rose to 11.9 million by 2000 and then doubled to 23.2 million by 2019, representing a 95 percent increase in almost 20 years. As of today, Asians constitute about seven percent of the nation’s overall population and their projected numbers are supposed to surpass 46 million by 2060. The lack of awareness regarding this rising minority group was only amplified by the egregious displays of intolerance and racism shown towards Asian Americans recently, which only exposes a larger trend of harassment against the AAPI community that often goes unreported or ignored. In order to educate and contribute to the #StopAsianHate campaign, we’ve highlighted some key moments in the over 150-year role that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders played in forging the American identity.

· 1765: The first Filipino Americans settle in Louisiana – Filipino sailors, also known as Manilamen, who worked as crew and indentured servants aboard the Spanish galleons, jumped ship in the Gulf of Mexico. They established the first Filipino American communities in the United States, setting up eight villages in the Louisiana bayous by building houses on stilts, replicating the nipa huts in the Philippines. Becoming skilled fishermen who mastered “dancing” shrimp on drying platforms; they fought alongside the U.S. in the War of 1812, founded ethnic organizations, and intermarried local Creole and Cajun families to form eight to ten generation of Filipino Americans

· Feb. 19, 1862: President Lincoln makes California’s ‘coolie trade’ ban national – Beginning in the 19th century, the coolie trade became a global system that relegated indentured Asian workers to plantations formerly labored upon and occupied by enslaved Africans. By the 1830s, coolies were considered suitable replacements to enslaved labor after the Atlantic slave trade was dismantled. Asians were subjected to the harsh, brutal, and deadly nature of human trafficking to dangerous work sites. The reckless and cruel abandon that characterized this labor, along with racist biases and the need for cheap, foreign, and disposable labor made this a go-to alternative for many.

· 1905-1906: Chinese businesspeople boycott American goods – Businesspeople in Shanghai and Guangzhou organized a boycott of U.S. products due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Often this racist doctrine prompted American immigration officials to deny access to Chinese people whom the law allowed in (students, merchants, and diplomats). This situation stimulated a growing sentiment of Chinese nationalism, the boycott was a way to affect change. Many young Chinese students saw the empowering response as inspiring, enrolling in Chinese universities and traveling to China to assist in its modernization. Half of the second-generation Chinese Americans moved out the country, but eventually returned at the start of the second World War.

· 1907: The Bellingham Riots – Known as the first large-scale anti-South Asian targeted attack in the country, inflammatory rhetoric spewed by the Asiatic Exclusion League encouraged hundreds of white workers to storm the coastal town of Bellingham, Washington at night in search of Indian workers. The Indian laborers at Bellingham’s lumber mills were badly beaten, pulled from their bunks, and had their bunkhouses set on fire. Those who managed to escape were rounded up by the local police and thrown in jail. Many fled into Canada afterwards, as this was only part of a series of orchestrated attacks against Asian immigrants up and down the U.S. and Canadian West Coast.

· January 1943: The first War Relocation Office opens in Chicago: Although most students will expect to learn about Japanese American incarceration during World War II, resulting in displacement from their jobs, families, and homes, many will not learn of the multigenerational trauma that lingers among the Japanese American community to this day. Less known than this devastating event, is the ironically formed resettlement program meant to reconcile this undemocratic situation.

In short, Asian Americans have faced a series of blatant mistreatment and subjugation, being denied citizenship rights, and being forced into low-wage jobs as Japanese, Korean, South Asian, and Filipino immigrants came to the U.S. in waves over subsequent decades. Asian Americans faced intense anti-immigrant brutality, exclusion, and shifting labor needs. They were barred from the naturalization process and suffered under restricted immigration laws for over 60 years, with further legislation, including the 1917 Immigration Act and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act, intensifying their plight. It wasn’t until 1965 that gains from the Civil Rights Movement ended these discriminatory and restrictive quotas.

Despite facing severe adversity, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders managed to rise. For instance, Chinese contract laborers were instrumental and building the transportation routes, infrastructure, and economy in this country, and are responsible for the mines, railroads, and factories currently standing. They also helped cultivate the nation’s food resources, serving as fishermen and farmers. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders also made vast breakthroughs in U.S. politics, civil/labor rights, technology, medicine, and the arts and sciences.

Asian American Trailblazers in Political Office

In 1957, Dalip Saund of California was sworn in as a U.S. representative. This was a historical moment because he became the first Indian American, Asian American, and Sikh to serve in a congressional capacity. The Indian immigrant, PhD recipient, and former judge was vocal on issues ranging from communism and civil rights desegregation, notably responding to the Little Rock Arkansas case. Meanwhile, two years later, Honolulu native and son of poor Chinese immigrants, Hiram L. Fong was sworn in as Hawaii’s first U.S. senator, becoming the first Asian American elected into the chamber. He was the only republican senator ever elected from the state and saw himself as an Asian American spokesman. Patsy T. Mink was sworn in as the first Asian American woman, and first woman of color to fill a congressional seat in 1965. She was a staunch advocate and supporter of women’s and civil rights, championing children, education, and labor unions. Mink vehemently opposed the Vietnam war, supported Head Start and the Women’s Educational Equity Act, and was a co-author and sponsor of 1972’s Title IX of Educational amendments, which outlawed sex discrimination in federally funded education programs or activities. If that’s not remarkable enough, she also co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 1994.

In the near future, President Bill Clinton swore in Norman Mineta in 2000 as the U.S. secretary of commerce, making him the first Asian American to hold a cabinet position. Mineta has a heartbreaking backstory, being one of the Japanese Americans who was sent to a World War II internment camp in 1942. He managed to soar and break institutional barriers, becoming the first Asian American mayor of a major city, San Jose, Calif., and serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1999. In 2001 he was named transportation secretary under George W. Bush, who also appointed Elaine Chao as secretary of labor. Chao was the first Asian American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

And of course, we couldn’t forget Kamala Harris, who was sworn in as the first female, Black, and Asian American vice president of the United States this year!

Labor Rights Advancement

Dealing with the pressure of cut wages and demanding improved working conditions, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee comprised of mainly Filipino farmworkers, started the Delano Grape Strike in California, lasting five years. The movement was so expansive and pronounced that it sparked a global grape boycott. The faction was led by Filipino American Larry Itliong and later joined by Cesar Chavez and Latino workers, banding together to form the United Farm Workers.

Arts, Entertainment, and Film

Martial arts movie, Enter the Dragon, starring Bruce Lee, premiered in 1973, three weeks after his passing. The box office hit was Lee’s first leading role in a Hollywood film, cementing the San Francisco-born martial arts expert, who was raised in Hong Kong, as a film icon and legend. Fast forward to 1982, the Vietnam War Memorial is dedicated in Washington D.C. Designed by Maya Lin, a first-generation Chinese American. The memorial hosts a simple black-granite wall that has nearly 60,000 names of fallen Americans inscribed on its surface. The Yale architecture student beat out 1,400 entries in a national competition to create the piece, transforming it into a display of honor and sacrifice. Now we’re teleported to 2018 where director Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians demolishes box office records, prominently unseating other contenders as North America’s highest-earning romantic comedy in over a decade. The film is also considered to be the first Hollywood studio movie since 1993’s Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Westernized Asian American cast. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the film grossed over $238 million with a $30 million budget.

Science and Technological Evolution

Often overlooked, Chien-Shiung Wu, PhD was one of the scientists involved in the Manhattan project, the codename for atomic weapons during World War II. Focusing on beta decay, she improved radiation detection technology and specialized in the enrichment of large quantities of uranium. Indian American computer architect Ajay Bhatt is best known for creating something you most likely use every day. He devised the Universal Serial Bus, popularly known as the USB. The USB was sensational, transferring data from one source to another and elevating Bhatt to celebrity status. Another platform you probably use constantly, YouTube, was co-founded by Taiwanese American Steven Chen, Bangladeshi-German American Jawed Karim, and Pennsylvania native Chad Hurley. The trio were inspired to create a video sharing site after witnessing Janet Jackson’s 2004 wardrobe malfunction and the deadly tsunami in Asia. The site evolved from sharing funny clips to a platform that now showcases videos for billions of people.

Civil Rights Movements

Although many Asian Americans are still dealing with the debilitating effects of racism today, modern and past activists are upholding the fight. For instance, Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese internment camp survivor, made it her life’s work to help causes benefiting people of color, focusing on issues affecting Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples, and of course, Asian American communities. She, along with her husband, moved to NYC, hosting weekly open houses for civil rights activists in her apartment, befriending and collaborating with Malcom X, campaigning for reparations and a formal apology for the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and continuing to partner with Black activists after Malcom’s death. Her efforts led to President Ronald Regan signing the Civil Liberties Act into Law in 1988. There were additional protests as outraged Asian Americans condemned two white autoworkers for beating Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat. Besides combatting brutality and discrimination, more than 20,000 garment workers gathered in Chinatown after labor union negotiations come to a halt. The majority female immigrants from China and Hong Kong held a series of rallies coupled with a one-day strike in 1982, the largest in Chinatown’s history, resulting in employers accepting the union’s contract outlines.

The AAPI community is a force to be reckoned with and continues to exhibit strength, diligence, and admirable character. Their achievements deserve to be remembered and celebrated as they continue to make revolutionary strides in the American collective and culture. You can partake in celebrations by reading books on the AAPI community, watching documentaries, or finding interactive activities to join here.

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