Reflecting on Five Decades: The Evolution of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month

Asian american, native hawaiian and pacific islander heritage month. Vector banner for social media. Illustration with text and hibiscus. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on green background.

by Melissa Gomez

As the United States approaches nearly half a century this May since the establishment of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it’s essential to reflect on its evolution and significance. What initially began as a week-long observance in May has transformed into a month-long celebration across the nation, encompassing a diverse array of events and themes.

From its inception, the recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander heritage aimed to shed light on the contributions and histories of these communities. The catalyst for this commemoration can be traced back to Jeanie Jew, a co-founder of the congressional Asian-Pacific staff caucus, who passionately advocated for the acknowledgment of her community’s legacy. Jew’s poignant recounting of her grandfather’s involvement in building the transcontinental railroad amidst anti-Asian hostility struck a chord with lawmakers, prompting the initiation of this observance.

Over the years, the focus of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has expanded beyond mere cultural showcases to encompass more profound discussions on topics like grief and social justice. The unfortunate rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic further underscored the importance of addressing pressing issues faced by these communities.

The choice of May for this commemoration is symbolic, marking significant milestones in Asian American history. May 7, 1843, commemorates the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States, while May 19, 1869, marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a project in which Chinese laborers played a pivotal role. These dates serve as reminders of the enduring contributions and resilience of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders throughout history.

The journey of recognition for these communities has seen milestones such as President George H.W. Bush’s expansion of the observance to the entire month of May in 1990 and President Barack Obama’s renaming of the celebration to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2009. Today, President Joe Biden’s administration has further expanded the designation to include Native Hawaiians, emphasizing inclusivity and recognition of the diverse tapestry of identities within these communities.

As the nation prepares to mark 25 years since the inception of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, a celebration at the White House on May 13 serves as a testament to the progress made in acknowledging and honoring the rich heritage of these communities.

As we look back on nearly five decades of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it serves as a reminder of the importance of embracing diversity, promoting understanding, and striving for equality for all communities across the nation.

Join us in celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May by enjoying and expanding our horizons with this curated list of movies, books, and a must-watch video:


  1. Everything Everywhere All At Once – A mind-bending, genre-blending film that explores identity, family, and the interconnectedness of the universe
  2. Raya and the Last Dragon – A visually stunning animated adventure set in a fantasy world inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, highlighting themes of trust and unity
  3. Moana – A heartwarming Disney animated film celebrating Polynesian culture, courage, and the power of self-discovery
  4. The Farewell – A poignant dramedy that explores family dynamics and cultural differences, particularly focusing on the Chinese-American experience
  5. Whale Rider – A powerful coming-of-age story set in New Zealand, following a young Maori girl’s journey to fulfill her destiny and challenge tradition


  1. Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner – A memoir exploring grief, identity, and the author’s Korean-American experience through food and family
  2. The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee – A comprehensive history of Asian Americans, spanning from the first arrivals to the present day, examining their contributions and struggles
  3. The Joy Luck Club: A Novel by Amy Tan – A classic novel intertwining the stories of Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters, delving into themes of culture, identity, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships

Must-Watch Video:
Queen Lili‘uokalani – The First and Last Queen of Hawai‘i – A captivating video exploring the life and legacy of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. This video offers insight into Hawaiian history and the impact of colonization on indigenous peoples.
These selections offer a diverse range of narratives and perspectives from the AAPI community, inviting viewers and readers to engage with rich cultural heritage and contemporary experiences.

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