TheSauce

Honoring AAPI History: Notable Figures

Honoring AAPI History: Notable Figures

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have undoubtedly been a crucial presence throughout American history. This month of May celebrates the achievements and contributions that AAPI individuals and communities have made! For that reason, we’ve curated a list of notable AAPI figures involved in activism and the government (amongst the broader, impressive array of AAPI figures). By no means is this list an end-all, exhaustive record showcasing the most important accomplishments or figures, but a simple, informative exhibition of people that we personally appreciate and would like to share. For further information on AAPI history, check out this website!

1. AAPI in Government

Dalip Saund


Image from Google

Dalip Saund was the first Asian American, Indian immigrant, and Sikh American to be elected to Congress. This was an outstanding moment in our AAPI history! Elected in 1956 as a Democrat, Saund was also reelected twice, which was amazing given the criticism and reluctance surrounding his ethnicity and religious beliefs. Though he unfortunately had to convince others that he was thoroughly Americanized, Saund never forgot his roots as a farmer and consistently supported small-scale farmers and businesses. 

Hiram L. Fong


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Born in Hawaii to two illiterate Cantonese immigrants, Hiram L. Fong was the first Asian American to be elected to the Senate. The 7th of 13 children, Fong grew up working menial jobs like shining shoes, catching fish, selling newspapers, and more. Truly coming from the bottom, Fong was able to work his way up by showing outstanding academic success while simultaneously working to pay for his tuition. Graduating from Harvard Law School and joining the U.S. Army Air Force after the Pearl Harbor attack, Fong was able to run for legislature in 1944. Through much trial and even more effort, Fong eventually served in the Senate for 18 years, from 1959 to 1977. 

Patsy T. Mink


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Also born in Hawaii, Patsy T. Mink was the first woman of color, first Asian American woman, and third-generation Japanese American to be elected to the House of Representatives. Overcoming sexist prejudices at the time (like being denied entry to take the bar because she was married and had child), Mink broke through each barrier by challenging these unfair, sexist laws. At the same time, she had to deal with racial prejudices as well, especially because of her interracial marriage. These trials would eventually prompt Mink to become a lifelong women’s advocate, promoter of gender equality, and supporter for the AAPI. 

Tammy Duckworth


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Born in Thailand, Tammy Duckworth was the first Thai American woman and first woman with a disability elected to Congress, not to mention the first U.S. senator to give birth in office! Now a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel with a Purple Heart, she is celebrated for her brave service in Iraq, where she suffered a grenade attack while flying a helicopter. Losing both of her legs didn’t stop her from serving in the Illinois National Guard, though. After her service, she ran for public office and eventually reached the Senate. Amidst all of her work in the Senate, she also faced challenges as a mother, which eventually led her to implement bills such as the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act. For more information, check out her interview and featured documentary

2. AAPI Activists

Philip Vera Cruz + Larry Itliong


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Before we go into their achievements, we’d especially like to address the gross invisibility of Filipino American history in U.S. education, discourse, and written texts. Though Filipino Americans were one of the first Asian Americans to arrive in the U.S., there is surprisingly little mention of their histories, and this group is frequently excluded in many panAsian initiatives as well. 

Born in the Philippines, Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong were Filipino American labor leaders who worked closely with Cesar Chavez. At the time, many Filipino immigrants came to the U.S. and worked in “manongs,” or agricultural fields in the West. Filipino labor was taken advantage of, receiving insufficient pay for long hours in the scorching heat. It was nearly slave labor with the filthy labor camps and lack of rights or healthcare. Both Vera Cruz and Itliong worked in these manongs from a young age, eventually started striking because of the horrible conditions, and ultimately helped form the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956. Most notably, Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez from the National Farm Workers Association joined hands with Vera Cruz and Itliong and formed the United Farm Workers, achieving successes for all agricultural workers through radical, strenuous work, leadership, and organization. 

Grace Lee Boggs


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Born in Rhode Island to Chinese immigrants, Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American human rights activist involved with civil rights, philosophy, feminism, the environment, and much, much more. Receiving a PhD in philosophy, Boggs was constantly radicalizing and exploring what it meant to be “American” in a racist, sexist society. Her work in activism truly exploded in Chicago, where she fought for workers on the ground level, founded youth and community programs, and joined the Worker’s Party and Detroit Black Power Movement. She married Black activist James Boggs and strongly supported cross-cultural activism. For more information, we recommend watching this documentary!

Yuri Kochiyama


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Born in California to Japanese immigrants in 1921, Yuri Kochiyama and her family were forced to relocate to internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attack. Her father, arrested and branded as a “Prisoner of War” by the FBI right after a surgical procedure, was detained for six weeks (which worsened his already poor health) and died shortly after his release. Meanwhile, in the incarceration camps, Yuri Kochiyama met her husband and developed her passion for activism. After release, she moved to New York and started her work, participating in civil, human rights, ethnic, and racial movements. She worked most closely with the Puerto Rican and Black American communities, and truly pioneered cross-cultural solidarity and the intersectionality movement. 

3. Asian American Political Alliance

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Founded in 1968 at the University of California Berkeley, the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) is celebrated for coining the term “Asian American” at a time when Asian ethnicities were called “Orientals,” the “silent minority,” or simply their more specific ethnic subgroup. Graduate students Emma Gee, Yuji Ichioka, Floyd Huen, Richard Aoki, Victor Ichioka, and Vicci Wong, by creating AAPA, joined the broken ethnic subgroups into a larger multiethnic community. This was also more effective for political demonstrations and collective progressive activism. Speaking out against acts such as the McCarran Internal Security Act (credited for the Japanese American internment camps) and the Vietnamese War, AAPA sought to bring equality to all people of color and spread anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. Actively working with African American, Chicano, and Native American groups, AAPA found this joint collaboration important in combating imperialism and racial injustice, and also in supporting fellow minorities. 

Yuji Ichioka


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 A Japanese American historian, civil rights activist, and founding member of AAPA, Yuji Ichioka (along with his family) were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps during WWII. After their release, Ichioka attended UCLA and subsequently, Columbia, but never finished his studies. After his trip to Japan, Ichioka was deeply inspired by its culture, and later earned his master’s degree in Japanese history at Berkeley University. Helping to coin the term “Asian American,” Ichioka was a huge proponent of Asian activism at the time and later became the first professor to host an Asian American studies class at UCLA.