Nearly 50 years later, Asian American and Pacific Islander month features revelry and racial justice

It has been nearly fifty years since the U.S. government established that Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and their achievements should be recognized annually across the country.

What started as just one week in May has grown over the decades into a month-long celebration of events in cities big and small. The nature of the celebrations also evolved. Asian American and Pacific Islander or Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is not only about showcasing festive fare like food and fashion, but also about difficult topics like grief and social justice. The rise of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic has only increased that effort.

“I think the visibility and extent to which organizations participate in Asian Pacific Heritage Month activities are also indicative of the increasing voice of Asian Americans and Islanders in civic life at large,” said Karen Umemoto, director of UCLA Asian American Studies Center. “And also an indication of the spaces we collectively enter in order to create them.”

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrations are not just reserved for ethnic enclaves or culturally specific locations. In the US, events are planned this year at public libraries, parks and museums highlighting a specific Asian culture or many of them.

Many attribute the origins of the celebration to Jeanie Jew, co-founder of the Asian Pacific Staff Conference Organization. In 1977, the Chinese-American shared a moving story with New York Republican Rep. Frank Horton about how her grandfather had helped build the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century and was then killed amid anti-Asian unrest.

Jew believed that Asians should appreciate their heritage and that “Americans should be aware of the contributions and history of the Asian-Pacific American experience,” Horton said in 1992, according to congressional archives. At that time, Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month had already been established. Yet Asian Americans were described as the fastest growing racial group.

Horton and California Democratic Representative Norm Mineta proposed to President Jimmy Carter to issue a proclamation that the first week of May would be “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.” Hawaii Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, both Democrats, advanced a similar bill in the Senate. .

May was chosen because of two important events. The first Japanese immigrants to the US arrived on May 7, 1843. On May 19, 1869, the last spike for the transcontinental railroad, in which Chinese workers played a crucial role, was embedded.

Umemoto remembers hearing talk about Asian Pacific Heritage Week as a student. But it wasn’t something that was mainstream.

“I think it used to be more of a cultural celebration of sorts,” she said. “And I remember a lot of student groups programming around the different histories, cultural traditions and issues in the community.”

In May 1990, President George HW Bush expanded the designation to the entire month. In 2009, President Barack Obama changed the name to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Now, President Joe Biden’s administration is calling it Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“As artists and journalists, physicians and engineers, business and community leaders, and so much more, AA and NHPI peoples have shaped the fabric of our nation and opened new possibilities for us all,” Biden said in an official Asian -American message. , proclamation of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, issued Tuesday.

The White House will hold a celebration in Washington on May 13 to commemorate 25 years since the start of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy groups have long used the month as a platform to bring resources to underserved communities and educate the public. But the one-two punch of COVID-19 and the attacks on Asian people in the U.S. really gave some a new appreciation for the purpose of heritage month.

Pre-pandemic, Amber Reed, of Montclair, New Jersey, didn’t really think about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She is a Korean-American adoptee who grew up as one of the few Asian children in rural Michigan and said she did not feel a strong connection to her Asian heritage. That changed after the March 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta, which left eight dead, including six Asian women.

“It certainly shocked me to think that my family could be safe and that we could just muddle through without having to deal with some of the very vicious currents of racism in our culture,” Reed said. “And I’m not proud that it took that moment to wake me up.”

In response to the shootings, Reed and about fifty others founded the nonprofit AAPI New Jersey, originally AAPI Montclair. Their advocacy began with inquiries into the recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by local schools and other institutions.

The group then quickly organized the Lantern Festival for Justice and Remembrance for May. The Chinese tradition of lighting lanterns became a means of honoring victims of hatred or injustice, Reed said. The event is now in its fourth year.

“I think one thing that Asian cultures do so well is provide these rituals, also for collective grief,” says Reed, who still finds it surreal that the group continues to grow.

The diversity of topics and cultures celebrated during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month have blossomed. There are events happening this month that cover more specific topics, such as a panel on the Asian American Church in Pasadena, California. There’s an Asian Comedy Fest in New York City. And in Wisconsin, the state will celebrate May 14 as Hmong-Lao Veterans Day, which was signed into law in 2021. Thousands of Hmong-Lao soldiers fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War. Many Hmong and Laotian families settled in Wisconsin.

These heritage month celebrations help erode the idea that the entire population is a monolith, Umemoto said.

“I think it’s important for people to visibly see a wide range of groups that fall under the category of Asian American and Pacific Islander. There are more than seventy different ethnic and national groups and more than a hundred languages ​​spoken within these communities,” Umemoto said. ‘And they are very different.’


Terry Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.