Currently over 20 million people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent live in the United States—accounting for about 6% of the population. They represent more than 56 ethnic groups and speak over 100 languages. Each year, the month of May is dedicated to celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, in which we acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians to the history of the United States. Let’s take time to learn more about the unique, vibrant cultures of their homelands with the stories of five AAPI heroes throughout history.
Kalpana Chawla was an astronaut, engineer, and the first Indian-born woman in space. She was selected by NASA in December 1994 and reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate. After a year of training and evaluation, Chawla was assigned as crew representative for the Astronaut Office EVA/Robotics and Computer Branches. She had a hand in the development of Robotic Situational Awareness Displays and was also tasked with testing space shuttle control software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. Chawla also served as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator on space flight STS-87 before being assigned as crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment. Thereafter, she served as lead for the Astronaut Office’s Crew Systems and Habitability section.
Chawla’s first space flight was on STS-87 Columbia on November 19, 1997. In 376 hours and 34 minutes, STS-87 made 252 orbits of the Earth, traveling 6.5 million miles. Her next space flight was unfortunately also her last. STS-107 Columbia lifted off on January 16, 2003, carrying seven crew members tasked with conducting research experiments. Columbia was slated to return to the Kennedy Space Center on February 1, but just 16 minutes prior to their scheduled landing, the shuttle broke up as it returned to Earth, tragically killing Chawla and the six other astronauts on board.
Yuna Kim, sometimes called “Queen Yuna,” is a retired figure skater and philanthropist. She was the first-ever South Korean figure skater to take home the gold at the Olympic Games. Actually, she was the first female skater ever to win every major international competition: the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Four Continents Championships, and the Grand Prix Final. But there’s even more—Kim was also the first figure skater to complete a Career Super Grand Slam by winning the Junior Grand Prix Final and the Junior World Championships. She was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine in 2010. That same year, she was named international UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, as she’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to relief efforts for natural disasters in Haiti, the Philippines, and Nepal. In 2015, Kim designed a bag for auction as part of the Fendi Seoul Peekaboo project; sales of the bag generated $15,000, all of which she donated to UNICEF.
Cecil Rajendra is a human rights activist, poet, and lawyer from Malaysia who’s been fighting for human beings his entire decades-long career. In 1980, he set up the first free legal aid clinic in Bayan Lepas free-trade zone in his home state of Penang, Malaysia. Malaysian workers were grappling with poor working conditions, low and/or non-payment of wages, housing issues, and sexual harassment. To make matters worse, there was a ban on unions in the area. The clinic allowed workers the aid they so desperately needed but couldn’t otherwise afford. Twenty years later, Rajendra created the first mobile legal aid clinic in the country, MOBLAC, so his fellow citizens could better understand their rights. He’s credited with initiating and leading the movement against Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, which allowed individuals to be imprisoned without official criminal charges or undergoing trials. Rajendra has also authored 25 books, and his poems have been published in more than 50 countries. He received the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 in recognition of his work in human rights and legal aid and, in 2019, he won the International Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award.
Arlen Sui, known as “La Chinita” (the Chinese girl), was a Chinese-Nicaraguan poet, essayist, singer-songwriter, and musician. She was one of the first female martyrs of the Sandinista revolution and fiercely fought for women’s rights and political justice. She wrote the poem Rural María, which tells the story of impoverished, overworked mothers in rural Nicaragua. Sui also penned many Marxist and feminist writings, studied at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, and sang with Marlene Avarez. Her concerts and performances were often monitored by snipers from the National Guard. In August 1975, when Sui was just 20 years old, the Guard ambushed her near a Sandinista training school in the city of Leon. She was hailed as a martyr for the cause and is remembered for her talent and unfailing courage.
George Jarrett Helm Jr.
George Jarrett Helm Jr. was a musician and aloha ʻāina activist from Kalamaʻula Molokai, Hawai’i. His first affiliation with a grassroots activist group was in 1975 with Molokai-based group Hui Alaloa, fighting to gain access to local beaches and mountains that had been off limits to the public for years. Helm became deeply involved in—and eventually became the president of—the Protect Kahoʻolawe (or Kahoolawe) ʻOhana organization. The island of Kahoʻolawe had been used by the United States Navy since 1941 to test bombs. As such, the island and the water surrounding it were off limits to civilians. In 1976, Helm and eight others—dubbed the "Kahoʻolawe Nine"—occupied the island to end the mistreatment of Kahoʻolawe. Upon their arrival, they were arrested by the Coast Guard. An archeological survey would later show that 29 sites across the island were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the US National Park Service, and Helm and the group would continue to visit Kahoʻolawe as part of their efforts.
On March 5, 1977, the day before leaving for Kahoʻolawe to retrieve two fellow activists that had been staying on the island despite continued bombings, Helm went to Maui to meet up with Kimo Mitchell. The next morning, Helm, Kimo Mitchell, and Billy Mitchell left Maui for Kahoʻolawe. What happened next is still unclear—but Billy Mitchell was the only known survivor. According to his story, the men were unable to find their friends. They were supposed to be picked up by another boat, but that vessel was later found sunken off the pier in Kihei with its drain plugs pulled. Instead of waiting for someone else to stumble upon them, the men decided to paddle back to Maui on surfboards. They were struggling in rough waters, so Billy Mitchell decided to turn back to Kahoʻolawe to find help. On March 8, he was airlifted from Kahoʻolawe, but the other two men were nowhere to be found. Helm did not die in vain, however; on October 22, 1990, President George H.W. Bush ordered that all weapons delivery training on Kahoʻolawe be stopped. A few weeks later, he signed into law the end of the bombing of Kahoʻolawe and returned its legal ownership to the state of Hawai’i.
We hope you enjoyed learning about some amazing historical figures you may have never known about before. Their incredible stories are cemented in US history and emphasize the important role Asian American and Pacific Islanders play in this country. Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!
Celebrate AAPI Heritage Month by sharing this blog—or drop us a line on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to let us know what these heroes’ stories mean to you. (And keep an eye out for Part 2, coming soon!)
- 20 Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know
- Hawaiian Patriots: George Helm
- Lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra wins IBA Pro Bono Award 2019
- NASA Biography: Kalpana Chawla (PDF)
- Nicaraguans remember Arlen Siu
- Telling All Americans' Stories: Introduction to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage
- Ten years later, Queen Yuna’s iconic crown glitters with transcendent brilliance