Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

It’s important to be educated about different cultures and ethnicities regardless of what time of year it is. However, shedding some light on different groups for a specific time of year can heighten awareness and celebration surrounding a unique heritage.


And that’s exactly what Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month seeks to do. The month of May was dedicated to honoring and celebrating this unique heritage in 1990 (expanding to a month from just a week since 1977) to increase visibility while also heightening education and empathy surrounding this group. 


The significance of the month of May stems from both the anniversary of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843, as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad (which was majoritively thanks to Chinese workers laying down tracks) on May 10, 1869. 


Becoming more empathetic towards different cultures starts by understanding the immense contributions made by the people within them. Let’s take a close look at some of the most pivotal AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) figures that have shaped the way our country operates today.


AAPI Figures To Know:

Dalip Singh Saund, Indian American Congressman

“Everyone thought I had no chance… But I had faith in the American sense of justice and fair play. I campaigned hard and I was elected.”


Dalip Singh Saund was born in Punjab, India in 1899, which was a British colony at the time. Saund went to college at University of Punjab where he majored in mathematics and graduated with a BS in 1919. After which, he moved to America to further his education.


Saund read the speeches of Woodrow Wilson and discovered the writings of Abraham Lincoln during World War I. He later cited that the Lincoln address changed the entire course of his life — so much so that he started gaining an interest in running for public office in the United States.


However, policy in the US made it very difficult for him, because federal law prevented him from becoming a US citizen. In the 1940s, he helped organize efforts to open citizenship to people of Indian descent living in the United States. He worked so hard that Congress eventually passed a bill allowing Indian immigrants to pursue status as a citizen.


In 1949, Saund ran for and won various positions in local government in California. And in 1955, he ran a campaign to sit on the US House of Representatives. He’d go ahead to win this honor twice, making him the first Sikh American, first Asian American, and first Indian American to be elected to Congress.


Saund is one of the most revolutionary figures of the modern day, opening doors throughout the political sphere for Indian-Americans to pursue a career in politics. But even moreso, his efforts made it so that individuals born in India could pursue naturalization in the US, which has enriched the country’s culture as a whole.


Jerry Yang, Taiwanese American Co-Founder of Yahoo! and Tech Investor

“It’s not healthy for patents to be used to stop other people from doing business.”


We use the internet every single day, and a lot of the services that you have at your fingertips might be thanks to Jerry Yang, the Co-Founder and former CEO of Yahoo.


Yang was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1968. He and his family moved to San Jose, California in 1978 and became fluent in English in just about three years. He’d go on to graduate from Standord University with a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering.


While at Stanford, Yang and a friend David Filo created an internet site called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” which consisted of a directory of a bunch of other websites. However, it grew in popularity and transitioned to become the famous search engine that you now know today: Yahoo.


Yang served as CEO of Yahoo from 2007-2009. He was named one of the top 100 innovators in the world under the age of 35 and is one of the first Taiwanese billionaires. Not only has his creation changed the way we live for the better, but he has served as an inspiration for other Asian Americans to follow in his footsteps.

Patsy Matsy Takemoto Mink, Japanese American Politician and Attorney

“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our own personal experiences … to make sure that others … do not have to suffer the same discrimination.”


Patsy Takemoto Mink was born in Paia, Hawaii Territory in December 1927. She graduated with a BA in zoology and chemistry from the University of Hawaii in 1948. And even though she originally planned to pursue a medical degree, she turned to law school after several medical schools turned down her application. When she earned a JD from the University of Chicago three years later, she became the first Hawaiian woman to do so.


When Hawaii finally achieved statehood in 1959, Mink became interested in taking up the new seat in the House of Representatives. Throughout her career, she never had a great relationship with the state leaders of her party, often citing their lack of support for her unwillingness to stick to their agendas.


However, Mink’s position in Congress was revolutionary because it cemented her as the first woman of color ever elected to Congress. She participated in the passage of the 1960s Great Society legislation during the first phase of her career.


Not only did the changes deployed by Mink during her time in Congress have direct benefits on the American people, but her legacy as the first woman of color in Congress has inspired many young women everywhere, in and out of politics alike. She set a precedent that has since been followed by countless women of color after her, including the current Vice President Kamala Harris.

Queen Liliʻuokalani, the Last Ruling Monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii

“Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”


Queen Lili’uokalani was the first and only queen to rule the Hawaiian Islands, reigning from 1891 until the islands were seized by the American government. Although she and her supporters tried to create an insurrection to return power to Hawaiian rule, they were unsuccessful and succumbed to the rule of the United States.


Still, she remained defiant and demanded a free Kingdom of Hawaii until her death. She is a major spark of revolution to this day, and is an inspiration for many people to remain steadfast in their beliefs.


With all of this said, Lili’uokalani was best known as a gifted songwriter, credited with writing “Aloha Oe (Farewell to Thee).” This is a global classic that has become synonymous with the islands of Hawaii, and this tune continues to remain prominent today.

Cecilia Chung, Hong Kong American Civil Rights Activist

“It might take longer than you anticipate, but eventually love is going to transcend it all.”


Born in Hong Kong in 1965, Cecilia Chung immigrated to Los Angeles with her family in 1984. She has a degree in international management from Golden Gate University, however, she is best known for her openness about being a transgender woman living with HIV.


Chung currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Evaluation of Transgender Law Center. She was also the first Asian and first transgender woman to be elected to the Lead of Directors of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Celebration. 


Not to mention, she is a staunch poltiical activist, constantly advocating for health-related issues affecting the LGBT community, including work as an HIV test counselor and HIV program coordinator at API American Health Forum.


In 2013, she was appointed to the Health Commission of San Francisco where she made headlines for making the city the first location in the United States to pay for gender reasssigned surgery for uninsured transgender patients. This was a giant step that spurred similar movements across the rest of the country.

Sombath Somphone, Community Development Worker

Sombath Somphone was born in 1952 in Khammouane Province, Laos. He later moved to the United States and grew up in Wisconsin before studying at the University of Hawai’i and earning a Bachelor’s degree in Education, as well as a Master’s in Agriculture.


Somphone returned to his home country after the Vietnam War and began work to try to establish sustainable farming methods in order to allow the Vietnamese people to have more food security. He was also given approval by the Ministry of Education to establish the Participatory Development Training Center to provide training for others to get involved in community development, which was the first of its kind organization in Laos.


Somphone has helped the province of Laos adopt a number of eco-friendly technologies and enterprises, such as the introduction of organic fertilizers, fuel efficient stoves, recycling, and more. 


While he never considered himself to be political, he later spoke out against lucrative land sales that had been approved by the Laos government, leaving many people homeless. This sparked outrage across the country, and it is believed to be part of the reason for his abduction in 2012. He has been marked as missing ever since.


Although his whereabouts are uncertain, what is certain is that Somphone has ignited positive change in his country, and he was often a voice for those without one. His contributions to the environment have had great effects on the globe as a whole, and he is a reminder that speaking out for what you believe in is always necessary.

Queen Velu Nachiyar, India’s First Female Liberation Fighter

Born in 1730, Velu Nachiyar was an only child born to two members of a royal family. And because of that, she was raised as a male and taught to horseback ride, conduct martial arts, and more. Later, she married the king of Sivagangi, had a daughter, and then ruled the kingdom for more than 20 years.


But when their home was attacked by the British and her husband was killed, Velu fled with ehr daughter and formed an army of her own to attack the British. She sought to destroy the British with her army.


In 1780, when she learned of a British storehouse containing vast amounts of weapons, she arranged the first recorded suicide attack in history to eliminate the storehouse, and therefore the weapons. This was a devastating blow to the British, which aided her ability in recapturing territory for the British. She is one of few royals to reclaim their kingdoms from British rule.

Cecil Rajendra, Malaysian Poet and Lawyer

“I hear of press conferences of petitions, of signatures of campaigns and lobbying but no words will come…”


Cecil Rajendra is a poet from Malaysia who is commonly referred to as the “Lawyer-poet” who has provided legal aid for the poor. Most of his writings are composed of complex themes like human rights, repressive laws, and environmental concerns.


However, he also spearheaded the movement against Malaysia’s Internal Security Act. This was a preventive detention law in Malaysia that allows for detention without trial as well as criminal charges under limited, legally defined circumstances.


Rajendra and friends set up a few legal aid clinics in his hometown of Penang to aid individuals who were victims of this act. He later went on to win the International Bar Association’s pro bono award for everything he had done for Malaysia’s underrepresented citizens. And on top of all of that, he has still found a way to author over 25 books and publish poems in over 50 countries.

Vue Pa Chay, Hmong Revolution Leader

Vue Pa Chay was an orphan who grew up in Lao Cai Province, Vietnam. He is known as a revolutionary hero of the Hmong people, as he led a revolt against French colonization in Southeast Asia. 


Often regarded as a Messiah figure, Pa Chay would do outrageous acts to prove that he was called on by God to enact change. This included jumping on top of a house and making balls of cotton explode.


He is unanimously considered a national hero because of how he led the Hmong rebellion against French forces. In fact, many of the battles led by him ended in Hmong victories over the French, which was no small feat at the time.

Chay’s bravery and passion for independence were not only influential back then, but continues to inspire others to this day.

Larry Itliong, Filipino-American Labor Organizer

“I feel we are just as good as any of them. I feel we have the same rights as any of them. Because in that Constitution, it said that everybody has equal rights and justice.”


Larry Itliong was a native of the Philippines born in 1913. One of six children, Itliong only had a sixth grade education. He and his family emigrated to America because they were enticed by promises of the American Dream. However, they were met by hardships and racial discrimination, which spurred his desire for political activism.


Despite his lack of education, Itliong was passionately committed to preserving the rights of the poor. He joined his first strike in 1930, and within the same year he co-founded the Alaska Canneries Workers Union. Quickly, he became known as a leading activist in labor organization throughout the entire West Coast.


He served in the Army from 1936 to 1943, later gaining US citizenship upon return from the war. Afterwards, he wasted no time getting right back into political activism and defending worker’s rights. He founded the Farm Labor Union in 1956 to protect the rights of poor farm workers across the country.


Itliong’s contributions were instrumental in union-building across the United States. Without his relentless commitment to his causes, many workers across the country would have not been able to unionize and preserve their rights as laborers.

Kalpana Chawla, Indian-Born American Astronaut and Mechanical Engineer

“You must enjoy the journey because whether or not you get there, you must have fun on the way.”


Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman to go to space in 1997. The youngest of four children, her interest in flying began from a young age after she saw a plane flying in the sky at just the age of three. She would beg her father to take her to the local flying club so she could watch the planes, and this soon grew into a finesse for aviation while in school.


Chawla wanted to major in aviation or space exploration in college, but professors consistently dissuaded her from doing so, stating that there are not many career opportunities for girls in India. However, she persevered, earning her degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College. Later, she immigrated to the US and obtained her doctorate in aerospace engineering from University of Colorado.


Shortly after, Chawla began working for NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1988. Then in 1994, she was selected as an astronaut candidate. Her first flight into space came in 1997 aboard Columbia Space Shuttle Flight STS 87. This was a pivotal space traveling excursion in which a number of different experiments were performed to enhance our understanding of space.


She was later selected for a second voyage into space on flight STS-107 in 2003. This aircraft carried a large specialized chamber that became damaged during the shuttle’s return to Earth. In less than a minute, the ship was depressurized, killing everybody on board.


Chawla died doing exactly what she loved, and her relentless commitment to her work has shattered barriers for women and Indian Americans across the globe. She remained committed to enhancing education surrounding outer space, and she is a pivotal icon for making space travel more accessible for anyone.

In Conclusion

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the innovations and perseverance of members of the AAPI community. It is a time to heighten awareness and allow yourself to become educated so that you can have a more open mind to empathize with those around you.


The individuals on this list are some of the most prominent AAPI figures, but they are most definitely not the only ones. It would take a lot longer than a month to fully envelope the sheer amount of progress that has been put forward by this community. 


If you’d like to read more about the history of AAPI individuals in America, visit the Library of Congress’ official website.



SAUND, Dalip Singh (Judge) | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

Biography: Patsy Mink |

Five Things To Know About Liliʻuokalani, the Last Queen of Hawaiʻi | Smithsonian Magazine

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month |

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