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WUWM's Teran Powell races on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Why the month of May is significant to Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Vector banner for social media, card, poster. Illustration with text, tropical plants. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month horizontal composition
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Every year, AAPI Heritage Month is celebrated in May. But why is this month significant?

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an annual celebration of the historical and cultural contributions of people of Asian descent in the United States.

It began as a weeklong celebration in the late 1970s, and eventually encompassed a full month by the 1990s.

And every year it’s celebrated in May. But why is this month significant?

Well, May 7 commemorates the arrival of the first Japanese to the U.S. in 1843. And May 10 marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, commemorating the contributions of Chinese Americans.

UW-Milwaukee history professor Chia Vang says the journey to make AAPI Heritage Month a reality did not happen overnight.

In 1977, two resolutions were introduced in Congress proposing that President Jimmy Carter designate the first 10 days of May Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.

But neither passed.

One year later, a slightly altered resolution asked to designate the seven-day period beginning on May 4 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. Carter signed the law to take effect in May 1979.

More than a decade later, Congress expanded the observance to a month. And by 1992, it designated May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month annually.

Vang says many month-long celebrations of groups that had been overlooked in society started after the Civil Rights Movement.

"So often you know many Asians were not considered citizens for a very, very long time and there's so much you know policies over the history of this country that excluded Asians," Vang says.

Policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. And the Immigration Act of 1924 completely prohibited immigration from Asia.

"So, it's very important for Asian Pacific Heritage Month and it's also important to make sure that we underscore Pacific Islanders, right? They have also been very instrumental to this country, but have not always been recognized for the cultural historical and major contributions. You know how many other months for different cultural groups actually began with just you know a week as well. So, very much following the same kind of request or fight for recognition."

Vang says multiple political, economic and social challenges were happening simultaneously in the U.S. as the original push for a week-long recognition of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage was happening.

"So, by the late 1970s things have changed a great deal right so this is kind of post-Vietnam War when you begin to see the changes. After the large group of Southeast Asian refugees started to come in this country, right — it began in 1975 so the introduction of the one week legislation was later in the 1970s — but there's all of these political changes. And I think kind of the economic challenges in the early 1980s – the recession, there's a lot of challenges right."

Vang adds that the 1982 murder Vincent Chin, a Chinese man in Michigan at the hands of two white men, also pushed the movement to advocate for Asian communities.

At the time Chin was killed, one of the economic challenges happening in the U.S. was that the auto industry was in decline, while the Japanese auto industry was thriving. Vang says in times when this happens, people of the majority blame immigrants.

" ... and this is not new right. It's kind of the way things always have happened throughout history is that you're pointing fingers whenever there is economic crisis; you point the finger at the immigrant or whatever. So, they were blaming Japanese carmakers right for you know the economic crisis in this country, so Vincent Chin was killed precisely because of you know all these other larger forces. So, lots of mobilization to get justice for him but then also for Asian Americans generally."

The men responsible for Chin's murder did not serve any jail time.

Vang says as people celebrate AAPI Heritage Month this year, she wants them to take time to learn about people that are different from them.

"I think getting ourselves to care about others who don't look like us, to care about the history, the contributions, all of these different cultural practices, food and culture and traditions that may be with groups that we may not socially identify with, but we’re part of the same community. Our lived experiences are so interrelated, but so often we live parallel lives."

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