Origins of Asian Pacific American
In the United States, the month of May each year is celebrated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This annual celebration came about in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed into law a Joint Resolution of the Congress of the United States designating the month of May for the celebration of Asian and Pacific Islanders culture and heritage.
In 2005, a new community tradition was born in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom embraced the proposal by former OCA National President Claudine Cheng, to launch an annual official celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in San Francisco. The Mayor’s APA Heritage Celebration Committee, comprising of a diverse group of APA community representatives, was established to coordinate this community celebration. In 2010, the APA Heritage Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit organization to help secure sponsorships and resources needed to carry on the annual festivities.
Why is the month of May designed for APA Heritage Month?
In the mid 1970s, a nationwide advocacy campaign was launched to obtain Congressional Resolution to designate one week in May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. This concept originated from Jeanie F. Jew, a staff person on Capital Hill at the time and a board member of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
Ms. Jew was frustrated that Asian Pacific Americans were not included as a recognized community in the celebration of the United States Bicentennial and she would like to see the United States government acknowledge Asian Pacific Americans as part of the country. In addition, she also wanted to commemorate her great grand father who had worked as a labor in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
In June 1977, a bill (HJRes.540) was introduced by Congressman Horton, co-sponsored by Congressman Norman Mineta (CA), to call upon the President of the United States to proclaim the seven day period beginning May 4, 1979 as “Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week.”
Consequently, Jeanie Jew enlisted the support of Ruby Moy, then an administrative assistant to Congressman Frank Horton (NY). In June 1977, a bill (HJRes.540) was introduced by Congressman Horton, co-sponsored by Congressman Norman Mineta (CA) to call upon the President of the United States to proclaim the seven day period beginning May 4, 1979 as “Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week.”
The drafter of the bills selected the week of May 4th because of two significant historical events that took place during that period: the arrival date of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States recorded on May 7, 1843, and the date of completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869.
The proposed legislation required the support and co-sponsorship of at least 218 members of Congress in order for the bill to pass the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. An intense national advocacy campaign was launched. Jeanie Jew founded and chaired the National Coalition for an Asian/Pacific American Heritage Proclamation, and together with Ruby Moy, they also founded the Asian Pacific Congressional Staff Caucus.
Major national organizations that were involved in the advocacy of the passage of these bills were: Organization of Chinese Americans, Japanese American Citizens League, and the Organization of Chinese American Women. This was the first national advocacy campaign that involved the youth and young professionals in our community, notably members of Young OCA under the leadership of then OCA Executive Director Hayden Lee.
As a result of persistent efforts, the coalition was able to secured 231 Congressional Representatives to co-sponsor the bill, and the bills were passed by an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate.
On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Joint Resolution into law which proclaimed the week of May 4-11 Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.
Meanwhile, the Joint Resolution adopted did not contain a provision for annual designation, and community organizations had to apply to Congress every year for the proclamation of Heritage Week. It took more than ten year of advocacy before the celebration was extended to include the entire month of May. On May 7, 1990, President George W. Bush signed into law proclaiming Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
In 1992, the Heritage Month celebration was finally institutionalized when Congressman Horton introduced legislation (HR 5572) to designate “May of each year as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.” The support for this proposed legislation was unanimous.
On October 23, 1992, community leaders from around the country witnessed a new chapter in Asian Pacific American history as the President signed into law proclaiming the month of May every year as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in perpetuity.
With this law, the President of the United States is “authorized and requested to issue annually a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe the month designated… with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.”
In addition to the Federal Proclamation, the law also provides for “State Proclamation,” so that “the Chief Executive Officer of each State is requested to issue annually a proclamation calling on the people of the State to observe the month designated… with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.”