Asian/Pacific American History: Learning our Legacy

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website to learn more about related records and resources.

APA Heritage Month is an opportunity to…contribute to the wider understanding of what it means to be an American.

– Alex Villaseran, archives technician and APA Unity co-chair

Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month was born of years of work by Asian/Pacific American (APA) community members, activists, educators, and politicians to have their histories and cultures recognized on a wider scale. It was first federally recognized as the first ten days of May in 1978, then extended to a full month in 1990.

To recognize the occasion this year, APA Unity, NARA’s APA employee affinity group, asked members of the NARA community to share what APA history means to them. As people who work with the records of U.S. history every day, we each share a unique perspective about the meaning of APA history to us as people and professionals.

Bridgette Banks, archives technician

APA History means more to me than I realized until I was asked. My oldest and dearest friend (may as well say sister) Azizza Jones is Filipina and African American and she is very proud of her heritage. As kids, she taught me so much about which people are considered Asians and destigmatized so many stereotypes, which in turn helped me to recognize that the media is not the real world. APA Heritage Month is important to me because it gives us the opportunity to experience life outside of our own. I am sharing Azizza’s words here: 

In April 1968, after serving in the United States Army as a Philippine Scout, my grandfather migrated from his homeland (Hinataun, Suriago Del Sur, Philippines) to the United States. The Philippines is considered a third-world country because of the high rate of poverty and slow development. My grandfather, just like so many other immigrants, made sacrifices by joining the military in search of better opportunities. APA Heritage Month is a great time to celebrate him and so many others for their courage and sacrifice. Thank you, Andres Malinao, Sr., for your service.

Jay Bosanko, Chief Operating Officer and APA Unity executive sponsor

Our nation’s history has been shaped by many. Truly understanding it means having an awareness of and appreciation for how different groups have both shaped it and how our history has in turn shaped them. Asian Americans and Pacific Americans are an important part of the ever-evolving mosaic of our country and learning more about their contributions, their rich heritage, and our nation’s impact on them through the records that NARA holds is something I look forward to during APA Heritage Month.

Gina Kim Perry, archives specialist

Although personal archiving was one of my interests while going through my master’s program, I didn’t do much to save or share my own personal history. Then, one spring day in 2009, my daughter said that she wanted to enter an APA Heritage Month essay contest but did not know what to write about. This gave me an opening to tell her the story of my childhood in South Korea. Until then, she knew little of my life before my immigration to the United States. After listening to me, she began to reproach me for not having told her more before. It is true that my early life had not been a topic that came up in our daily conversations, and it took a specifically designated occasion on the calendar to nudge me to share my personal history. To me and others like me, then, the importance of APA Heritage Month is to remind us to stop and reflect on our history and perspectives and share them with the next generation.

Claire Prechtel Kluskens, digital projects archivist

APA Heritage Month is a reminder to learn something different. I frequently read about American and European history. Meanwhile, Asia and the Pacific are known only faintly through the lens of American history: the 1815 Mount Tambora volcano, 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, 1898 annexation of Hawaii, and the World War II Pacific Theater. Yet there is much more to be discovered and appreciated: art, literature, languages, cultural traditions, religions, and the glue of centuries of history that binds them together. It’s time to choose a new set of books to read.

Katie Seitz, archives technician and APA Unity co-chair

I was taught that US history was “real” history. Asian/Pacific American history was “extra” history, the kind mentioned in small “Did You Know?” sidebars in the textbook, if at all. My Korean immigrant family and community seemed completely absent from the world that my textbook presented. It was only later that I learned of the racist legal barriers that prevented Asian immigration through much of the first half of the 20th century and the legislative changes of 1965 which struck them down, enabling my mother to emigrate in 1969. It was still later that I learned about an earlier wave of Koreans who came to the U.S., laborers who were sent to Hawaiian plantations in 1903 as strike-breakers to replace Japanese workers rebelling against horrible conditions. 

The complicated history of Asians and Pacific Islands people in the U.S. is far more than a sidebar. Working at the National Archives reminds me that we have always been here, shaping and being shaped by this country. 

Anita Solak, archives technician

What does being Asian American mean to me? It means what it may to any other ethnic American, a paradox of being both and being neither. These days, the United States seems to struggle with ethnic diversity. It sees it as an anomaly and threat and uses it to divide, ostracize and blame. Accepting the diversity of others makes one more rounded, sensitive and tolerant. People from different cultures contribute language skills, new ways of thinking, new knowledge and different experiences. Eddie Wong, of the Angel Island Immigration Foundation, writes that “being Asian American means wearing many layers of identity. At first glance, a person of Asian ancestry. At first spoken word, an American. At deeper reflection, a person of color in America. At the core a person who seeks peace and social justice.”

Alex Villaseran, archives technician and APA Unity co-chair

I fell in love with history taught in a way that would sound familiar to most people who attended elementary school in the U.S.—a clear, linear path from the landing of the Mayflower to the emergence of the modern world. However, I often questioned where my personal history fit into this narrative. As a young Filipino-American growing up in Northern California, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and who shared a common culture and history, but it wasn’t the one we read about in class.

Although the school history books didn’t have too many pictures of people that looked like me, my education in Asian Pacific American history was constant. It’s difficult not to absorb when it lives in the places and people around you. I had friends whose parents were Vietnam War refugees, classmates of Japanese heritage whose grandparents were held in internment camps, and Filipino neighbors who had marched in solidarity with Cesar Chavez. APA Heritage Month is an opportunity to shed light on these stories and others, and to contribute to the wider understanding of what it means to be an American.

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