Detail from portrait by the Korean American photographer CYJO, part of a Smithsonian museum series on Asian American Portraits of Encounter. Photo: © CYJO via National Portrait Gallery.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a celebration of the history, contributions, and culture of Americans from Asia and the Pacific Islands. As we reported earlier, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 5.6% of the American population – 17.3 million – and grew by 46% in the last ten years, faster than any other race group, according to the 2010 Census.

This year’s Presidential Proclamation recalls the many contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) that have made America what it is today, but also addresses the many difficulties that this population has faced historically and today – motivation for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which seeks to expand access to Federal programs where AAPIs are currently underserved. President Barack Obama’s Proclamation also recognizes two significant anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the Executive Order that authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II – a sad chapter of US history – and the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese cherry trees planted in Washington, DC – a happier symbol of enduring friendship between Japan and the United States. As the Proclamation states:

“Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month offers us an opportunity to celebrate the vast contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to our Nation, reflect on the challenges still faced by AAPI communities, and recommit to making the American dream a reality for all.”

Official recognition of Asian Pacific Americans started as a congressional bill in 1977 by Representatives Frank Horton (NY) and Norman Mineta (CA), and one month later by Senators Daniel Inouye (HI) and Spark Matsunaga (HI). The bills passed with overwhelming support and in 1978 Jimmy Carter signed the Joint Resolution into law, proclaiming the week of May 4-11 Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. This week of May was chosen for two significant historical dates: the first Japanese immigrated to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad, built largely by Chinese immigrants, was completed on May 10, 1869. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation that extended the week-long celebration into a month-long celebration, but it was not until 1992 that the Heritage Month was institutionalized into an annual, recurring celebration (until then, the legislation had to be renewed every year). Each year, the president issues a Proclamation to recognize the month.

Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Proclamation of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. Source:
Numerous festivities are planned for this month, including a sampling here:
  • Chicago’s Public Library system will highlight AAPI traditions, history, and contributions to the music industry.
  • Los Angeles has a month-long calendar of cultural events including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and a poster contest for students to submit their interpretations on the LA festival’s theme of “Breaking the Mold.”
  • The Smithsonian Institution will host numerous events at its museums, including a family day of music, dance, arts-and-crafts, video interviews, and gallery tours in Washington, DC.
  • San Francisco will host several events including an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum entitled “Growing Up Asian.”
  • Pittsburgh will host the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival.
  • Washington’s State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs has published a series of interviews with state employees of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent.
  • New York City will host its 33rd annual heritage festival, which its organizers, the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, claim is “the longest running and largest event celebrating pan-Asian heritage nationwide.” Macy’s department stores, a sponsor of the festival, will showcase Asian Pacific cuisine, dance, and vocal performances in nine stores across the country.

For more information on Heritage Month, see the Library of Congress’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month website.