HISTORY OF ASIAN AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH
By Melissa-Ann Nievera-Lozano, SJCC Ethnic Studies Faculty
Hello fellow faculty!
May is always a beautiful month because we get to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Our lectures wind down. Our last assignments roll in. The sun shines a bit brighter, and we’re reminded: we’re almost done! In between pockets of rest, we may begin to reflect on how much we’ve accomplished with our students and our colleagues.
But May is also known as Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. For this month, we see that the month is a way to celebrate shared heritages from across Asia and Oceania. Such a month is born out of collective action and solidarity, the same things we know are at the heart of union organizing.
From as early as the late 1970s, the first 10 days of May were proclaimed as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. By the early 1990s, it was extended to a whole month called Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. And as recently as 2021, President Joe Biden declared May as Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The name changes over time reflect the beautifully complex and dynamic geopolitical shifts across our communities. For a quick history, click here.
It began with the term Asian American. Asian American is a term born during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s alongside the establishment of Ethnic Studies. Students, scholars, activists, and leaders who identified ethnically as Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean were protesting the mistreatment of their communities and working to improve their material conditions, as they were witnessing the Black Power Movement gain momentum under a unified front.
Coined by Yuji Ichioka, the term Asian American allowed different groups to join together under a pan-Asian identity for a shared political purpose and better yet, to forge an alliance with Blacks, Latinas/os and American Indians/Native Americans to work on a common agenda across intersecting social movements. Decades later, the 2000 Census would define Asian American as those with origins from the “Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.”
The classification broadened even further to Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI as early as the 1980s and ’90s. While this broader term attempted to strengthen us, some adverse effects pointed out by Pacific Islander scholars and community members troubled us. It’s tricky. Ultimately, the hope with these shifting terms is to best describe our diverse and fast-growing population of 23 million Americans, including roughly 50 ethnic groups with roots in more than 40 countries.
To celebrate our many heritages, May was chosen, commemorating the first arrival of Japanese immigrants in 1843, as well as the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad built by the hands of thousands of Chinese immigrants. Note, however, that the earliest settlement of Asians took place back in 1763, when Filipino fishermen took refuge in the marshlands of Louisiana after escaping Spanish Galleons on the trade route between Manila and Acapulco.
This year’s theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.” When we say opportunity, we’re talking about what it means to make the conditions, circumstances, spaces, and resources available and possible to get something done. We must connect this theme with how we also celebrate May Day or International Workers’ Day on May 1st. This commemoration was born out of the 8-hour workday movement in 19th-century Chicago, when labor activists protested the repeated deaths of adults and children laboring under poor working conditions and long hours. By organizing together, they created opportunities for themselves and all of us to see the possibilities of actively shaping our workplaces (and our worlds) where we all may live well.
Similarly, AA & PI Heritage Month invites us to witness the valuable contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our society who make our neighborhoods, workplaces, hospitals, public spaces, classrooms, and businesses safe and thriving. Living and working in San Jose in particular, where up to 38% of residents may identify as AA & PI, we never go untouched by their labor and leadership.
So, fellow faculty, as you sip your favorite beverage and submit grades soon, I salute you! Cheers to all you’ve done to plant seeds and to create opportunities for our students. Before the month ends, kindly give a nod to someone you know of AA & PI heritage, and recognize they carry a legacy of labor and leadership within them, centuries deep and miles wide.