Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – now officially proclaimed as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – is a month-long celebration of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States during the month of May.
But AAPI Heritage Month wasn’t always a month-long celebration. Like most commemorative months, AAPI Heritage Month originated in Congress.
In 1977, Representative Frank Horton of New York introduced a resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week known as House Joint Resolution 540. A month later, Senator Daniel Inouye introduced Senate Joint Resolution 72, a similar resolution to Rep. Horton’s. Neither of the resolutions passed.
But in June 1978, Rep. Horton tried again and introduced House Joint Resolution 1007, a proposal for the President to “proclaim a week, which is to include the seventh and tenth of the month, during the first ten days of May of 1979 as ‘Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.’”
The seventh and tenth day of May were specifically stated in the proposal to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The completion of the transcontinental railroad is significant because a majority of the workers who laid its track were Chinese immigrants.
Rep. Horton’s efforts the second time around succeeded and the joint resolution was passed by both the House and the Senate before being signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. Throughout the next decade, Presidents would pass annual proclamations for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, a 7 day period beginning May 4.
It wasn’t until 1990 that President George H. W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to extend the week to a month. Two years later, May officially became Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.
To honor this year’s AAPI Heritage Month we have chosen 17 of the most influential Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders who have positively impacted our society.
Ted Lieu is a Taiwanese-American politician, and is currently serving as the United States House of Representatives for California’s 33rd district. He is also ranked as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves.
From 2005 to 2010, Lieu was a State Assemblyman, representing the 53rd district, and from 2011 to 2014, served as a State Senator for the 28th district, succeeded both seats in special elections.
Ahmed Badr is a writer, social entrepreneur, poet and a former Iraqi refugee. On July 25, 2006, Badr’s home in Baghdad was bombed by militia troops forcing his family to relocate to Syria before being approved to move to the U.S. two and half years later.
In 2015, Badr founded Narratio, a platform for youth empowerment through creative expression, and co-founded UNPACKED in 2016 with Syrian artist and architect Mohamad Hafez, a multimedia installation seeking to humanize the word “refugee” through a series of remodeled homes of refugees inside suitcases. Badr is in the process of writing a book focusing on the creative expression of refugee youth across the world.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina, is a native Hawaiian and identifies as a traditional third gender person who is in a place between male and female as well as a trans woman.
Wong-Kalu is a kumu hula (hula teacher), filmmaker and community leader in the language and cultural preservation of Kanaka Maoli – the Aboriginal Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands.
Pichai Sundararajan, also known as Sundar Pichai, is an engineer and business executive born and raised in India. He holds and M.S. in material science and engineering from Stanford and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.
Pichai served as the Product Chief of Google before he transitioned into his current role as chief executive officer of the company as part of the restructuring process when Alphabet Inc. became Google’s parent company.
Chrissy Teigen is half Thai from her mother’s side. Teigen is a model, entrepreneur, TV personality, author of two New York Times bestseller cookbooks, activist and clapback queen.
She is known to criticize the Trump administration and unapologetically voice her opinions on Twitter, as well as fiercely supporting women’s reproductive rights and immigrants’ rights.
She is the mother of two children, Luna and Miles, with husband John Legend.
Naomi Osaka is a professional tennis player. Osaka has both American and Japanese citizenship, although she chooses to represent her native country Japan in the sport. She made her breakthrough in women’s tennis in 2018 when she won her first Women’s Tennis Association title at the Indian Wells Open. Later that same year, she won her first US Open, defeating 23-time champion Serena Williams in the final to become the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. Osaka won her second Grand Slam title at the 2019 Australian Open.
Sandra Oh is a Canadian-American actress born to Korean immigrant parents. Oh has a long list of acting credits, but is known most for her starring roles as Dr. Cristina Yang on the long-running ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and as Eve Polastri on BBC America’s Killing Eve.
Oh is the first Asian woman to win two Golden Globes – the first for her portrayal of Dr. Yang and the other for Eve Polastri. She was also the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Primetime Emmy Award for her performance on Killing Eve.
Nico Santos is a Filipino-American actor, who immigrated to the United States as a teenager. Santos is known for his role on NBC’s Superstore as Mateo Liwanag, an undocumented sales associate. He was also part of the cast of the 2018 romantic comedy blockbuster hit, Crazy Rich Asians.
Santos is also openly gay, dating Survivor contestant Zeke Smith, and a staunch advocate for increasing the visibility of his Asian-American LGBTQ+ peers.
Hasan Minhaj was born in Davis, California to Indian parents. Minhaj is a comedian, writer and political commentator, and served as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show before leaving to host his own weekly comedy show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, on Netflix.
Patriot Act is a political satire show that explores the current cultural and political landscape in depth, talking about everything from affirmative action, oil and brands like Supreme.
Radhika Jones is the daughter of an American father and an Indian mother. Jones received her BA from Harvard and her PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia.
Jones previously worked as the managing editor, deputy managing editor and editorial director of the books department for The Paris Review, Time and The New York Times respectively before becoming the fifth editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair magazine in 2017.
Chloe Kim is a Korean-American snowboarder. Kim learned to snowboard at the age of 4, and began competing at 6. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, she became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal when she won gold in the women’s snowboard halfpipe at just 17.
She is the current World, Olympic, Youth Olympic and X Games champion in the halfpipe, and the first to win the title at all three major events.
Bambu DePistola is a Filipino-American rapper and community activist. As a teenager, Bambu got involved with Filipino street gangs and was arrested and sent to juvenile hall before joining the Marines at 18.
The messages in Bambu’s raps are uncompromising, and are used to push people to organize. He uses his platform as a rapper to speak out against the U.S. government, white supremacy and the police.
Rose Pak was a Chinese political activist based in San Francisco. Before becoming a full-time activist, Pak worked as a journalist with The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, its first female Asian American journalist.
Pak was known for advocating for the Chinatown community in San Francisco, and often being the connection between politicians and the growing Asian American population in the city.
Pak passed in 2016 at the age of 68.
Vera Wang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and is a fashion designer and mogul.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Wang was hired as an editor at Vogue, becoming the youngest editor at the magazine. She worked at Vogue for 17 years and at Ralph Lauren for 2 years before she became an independent bridal wear designer.
Wang has created a name for herself in the fashion industry, and was number 34 in Forbes’ America’s Richest Self-Made Women in 2018. She has designed wedding gowns for figures such as Mariah Carey, Chelsea Clinton, Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian and has had her evening wear worn by former first lady Michelle Obama.
Dwayne Johnson is a professional athlete, actor and producer of Samoan descent. Johnson started as a college football player for the University of Miami before securing a contract with WWF as a professional wrestler.
Johnson is known for his roles in the Fast and the Furious franchise and voicing the character of Polynesian demigod Maui in Disney’s 2016 film, Moana. In 2012, he founded his own production company Seven Bucks Production, co-producing films like 2017’s Baywatch remake and the upcoming Jumanji sequel – both of which also star Johnson.
Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1929 at the age of 14. Itliong was an organizer and was an essential part of the labor movement, though he is often left out of the history books.
Itliong led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and in 1965, approached the National Farm Workers Association led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, asking them to join the strike, which became known as the Delano Grape Strike. A year later, he co-founded the United Farm Workers, combining the two organizations.
Itliong passed in 1977 at the age of 63.
Tammy Duckworth is a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and is currently serving as a United States Senator for Illinois. She also served in the House of Representatives for Illinois’ 8th district from 2013-2017
Duckworth is the first Thai-American elected to Congress. She is also the first woman elected with a disability. During her time serving in Iraq Duckworth became a double amputee after losing both of her legs, as well as losing some mobility in her right arm.
And if her list of firsts wasn’t already long, she is also the first Senator to give birth while in office.
To add your own creative spin to this illustration of these incredible leaders, just download this printable version of our AAPI illustration here!