Since 1977, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage has been highlighted in May. It started with just a week of observance, and, in 1992 Congress permanently designated the whole month of May as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.” “The month of May was chosen because it commemorates the migration of the first immigrants from Japan to the United States on May 7, 1843 and to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad by over 20,0000 Asian immigrants on May 10, 1869.”1
The Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC), the premier organization representing Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in the Federal and District of Columbia governments, selected the theme for this year’s Heritage Month: Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.
CASA of the River Region’s Director of Development, Amabelle Camba, is Filipino-American, and was voted as Today’s Woman Most Admired Woman in Nonprofit Leadership for 2022. When asked about this honor and celebrating AAPI Heritage Month, she said, “It’s an honor to be recognized for my work serving the most vulnerable children in our community. I couldn’t have gotten to this point in my career without the mentors and leaders who looked like me and the ones who helped pave the way for me.”
AAPI have been a part of the fabric of the United States before America even existed.
According to the Bering Land Bridge Theory, Asians first migrated to what is now known as North America over 15,000 years ago through a land bridge between Asia and North America. In the 16th century, Filipinos who were escaping forced labor and enslavement during the Spanish galleon trade immigrated to North America, eventually establishing a settlement in St. Malo, Louisiana in 1763. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, a wave of Asian immigrants came to the West Coast and provided labor for gold mines, factories and the transcontinental railroad. In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for 20 years.
Japanese and Koreans began immigrating to the United States by 1885 to replace Chinese labor in railroad construction, farming, and fishing. However, in 1907, Japanese immigration was restricted by a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan. The civil rights movement assisted the liberalization of immigration laws. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act changed restrictive national origin quotas and allowed for the large numbers of Asians and Pacific Islanders to come to the United States with their families. In the mid-1970s, refugees from Southeast Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came to the United States to flee war, violence, and hardship.2
AAPI are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. According to the US Census Bureau, “Multiracial and Hispanic communities were the fastest growing groups in the past decade. Kentucky’s Asian population rose by 53% and accounted for 1.6% of the state’s population.”3
CASA volunteers reflect the state’s population make-up with 2% of all volunteers identifying as Asian. CASA of the River Region serves six Kentucky counties (Jefferson, Henry, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer, and Trimble counties). In those six counties, the number of Asian children appointed to CASA is 0.4%.
Nationally, approximately 22.75% of children in Foster Care identify as AAPI but make up only 13.7% of total child population. In the US, children and families of color are disproportionally represented in the child welfare system.
CASA is constantly working on recruiting a diverse volunteer base to ensure proper representation of the community it serves. Amabelle commented, “It’s so powerful when you are able to see yourself reflected in everyday life. It removes this idea that you are different, that you aren’t American. Hollywood, albeit slowly, has started showing AAPI characters who aren’t just stereotypical. Today, AAPI kids can see themselves as main characters in books, on tv and in the movies. You feel like you’re being seen when you see characters being represented as a whole person and not just as aspects of their culture.”
CASA volunteer Maya Warrier is East Indian from South India. She decided to become a CASA because “children need protecting and when it’s your family that caused you pain...it is awful for anyone to go through, especially a child.” Maya believes that having to juggle two cultures helps her be “open-minded and understanding that there may be cultural aspects of what’s happening with a child. I grew up in a fairly strict Indian household and wasn’t always able to do the same things as my friends. Understanding this and not judging a child for their own cultural following has helped me with my CASA cases.”
Today, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial group in the United States.
Asia is the largest continent and is made up of 50 countries with over 4 billion people. AAPI is a term that includes “all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander ancestry, who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions and/or the diasporic communities of these geographical regions.”4
To better understand the diversity of this population, it helps to know exactly what countries and cultures are represented under this broad term. Pacific Islanders are from Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, which includes Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Guamanian, Fijian and Papua New Guinean people. Asians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are defined to have origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, which includes China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, India, Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines.
As we end the month of May, we hope that it doesn’t officially close the book on celebrating the diversity of the AAPI community and their unique life experiences, traditions, and cultures. Here are some resources to learn more:
4 Asian Pacific Institute