Welcome to the second installment of our Asian American and Pacific Islander Heroes of History series! Below, you’ll meet five more amazing individuals of AAPI heritage. From farmworkers to medical doctors, they all positively impacted American history, and their stories deserve to be heard and shared.
Josefa Llanes Escoda
Josefa Llanes Escoda was a Filipina suffragist who dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She earned her Teaching degree at the Philippine Normal School in Manila, graduating with honors. She went on to get her high school teacher’s certificate from the University of the Philippines—but Escoda didn’t stop there. She became a social worker for the Philippine Chapter of the American Red Cross, which earned her a scholarship to attend Columbia University, where she would study Sociology. While in the US, Escoda also represented the Philippines at the Women’s International League for Peace and trained female teachers from the public and private sector to become Girl Scout leaders. When she returned to the Philippines, she organized a Girl Scouts chapter there, which was officially signed by President Manuel L. Quezon, and acted as the chapter’s first National Executive.
Escoda’s life and career were derailed by World War II, but she didn’t let up. She educated members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC) to set up emergency aid centers and food preservation during the war and aided prisoners of war and stranded women and children—which eventually led to being arrested and imprisoned in Fort Santiago, where she was brutally tortured and, eventually, executed. Josefa is one of just two women to appear on the current series of Philippine peso notes—a significant nod to her bravery and contributions to her home country and the world.
Sombath Somphone is a community development worker, scholar, and scientist from Laos. Somphone earned his bachelor’s degree in Education and his master’s degree in Agriculture at the University of Hawaii before returning to Laos in 1980. He believed deeply in educating the youth of his home country to make strides in reducing poverty, finding sustainable farming solutions, and more. In 1996, Somphone founded the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane in 1996. The goal of the center was to provide youth education for sustainable development. The volunteers were learning by doing, which he called “participatory learning.” The young volunteers at the PADETC experienced the joy of activity-based learning that took the classroom outside. With play and storytelling at the forefront, learning became more engaging and impactful.
For his work with Laotian youth, Somphone received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. The Magsaysay Awards, which were established by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, are often referred to as “Asia’s Nobel Prizes.” On December 15, 2012, Somphone was stopped by the police in Vientiane, and he’s been missing ever since. The United Nations, European Union, and the United States believe that he’s possibly being held by authorities, but to this day, there has been no news of his whereabouts.
Dr. Me-Iung Ting
Dr. Me-Iung Ting was a physician from China who worked tirelessly to improve medical care for women, children, and refugees. From 1892 to 1943, the US government limited the immigration of Chinese laborers—and even prohibited Chinese immigrants from gaining citizenship. Fortunately, as a medical student, Me-Iung Ting was able to gain entry into the US on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship. In 1914, Ting attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and ultimately graduated from the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. When she arrived in 1916, she was the only Chinese woman there. After eight years of studying and interning in medicine in the US, Ting returned to China in 1922. Ever-passionate about women’s health, Dr. Ting led the Chinese delegation to the first Pan-Pacific Women’s Congress in 1929. That same year, the University of Michigan awarded her a year-long Barbour Fellowship, an endowed scholarship for female graduate students from Asia and the Middle East. In 1935, Ting was appointed as Director of the Tientsin Infants Asylum by Tientsin’s mayor. She was the first woman appointed to a government position in the city.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War wreaked havoc on her home country, Ting ignored the restrictions imposed by Japanese authorities to ensure expectant mothers could deliver safely. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, she helped thousands of Korean refugees in need of medical care. As civil war broke out in China between the Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s, Ting served as the chair of China’s International Relief Committee for six years and later chaired the United Nations Emergency Fund for Children (now UNICEF). Eventually, Dr. Ting fled from China, immigrating to the United States in 1950. For the remainder of her life, she poured herself into medicine while speaking out against China’s Communist government. Ting finally became a US citizen in 1969—but that same year, she died of a heart attack at a medical conference in New York City.
Philip Vera Cruz
Philip Vera Cruz was a Filipino American farmworker in the 1940s in California. He picked fruits and vegetables for 10-hour days in 110-degree heat. The labor camps where the farmworkers lived had only outdoor kitchens, toilets, and showers—and workers had no benefits, no rights, and no health care. On September 8, 1965, Vera Cruz and the other farmworkers went on strike to protest the insufferably poor pay and conditions and boycott non-union grapes. The Filipinos also asked Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association, to join them. The farmworkers gained international support, and the strike led to the formation of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). Philip became the UFW officer for Agbayani Village, a retirement home for farmworkers who worked backbreaking jobs for most of their lives only to retire with no savings or assets. In 1988—years after Vera Cruz had retired—Filipino President Corazon Aquino awarded him the Ninoy Aquino award for his years of service.
Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American author, social activist, and philosopher. She enrolled at Barnard College in New York City when she was just 16 years old and went on to earn her doctorate in Philosophy in 1940 at Bryn Mawr College. Upon graduating, she longed to stay in academia, but no university would hire a Chinese American woman to teach. A leftist, Grace discovered a sect called the Johnson-Forest Tendency, or “The Johnsonites,” who worked in factories to make ends meet while indulging in philosophy and theory in their free time. In 1953, Grace moved to Detroit, where she met her husband James (Jimmy) Boggs, a Black Johnsonite, philosopher, and autoworker from rural Alabama. The Black autoworkers of the Detroit factories were marching against discrimination decades before Martin Luther King Jr. made his mark.
Grace and Jimmy eventually left Detroit behind in the 1960s as factories began to close and Black workers continued to be mistreated. In 1963, she joined the Great Walk to Freedom, which attracted 100,000 people and was led by Dr. King. That same year, Grace and Jimmy invited Malcolm X to Detroit, where he delivered his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech. The couple also worked with insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Action Movement, continuously fighting for civil justice. When Grace was in her 70s, she began attending meetings of Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), which consisted mostly of Black mothers of murdered children in Detroit. The group marched against violence and developed curricula for Detroit’s public schools. From there, Grace launched Detroit Summer, with volunteers planting community gardens and working with school-aged children. In the early 2010s, they started a charter school. Grace died peacefully at home in 2015 at the ripe old age of 100.
We hope you enjoyed learning about five more amazing AAPI heroes throughout history. There are many other incredible individuals that have enriched America, so keeping celebrating AAPI heritage all year by reading and sharing their stories. Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!
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Connect with colleges mentioned in this article
- 20 Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to Know
- The Legacy of Josefa Llanes Escoda
- National Park Service: Dr. Me-Iung Ting
- Postscript: Grace Lee Boggs
- Sombath Somphone: Preparing a Generation of Leaders in Laos
- The Curious Case of Sombath Somphone
- United Farm Workers (UFW) Movement: Philip Vera Cruz, Unsung Hero