Honoring Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month with Kilee Mendiola

Written by Kilee Mendiola May 18, 2022
The People

Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants, thousands of whom are nameless and not recognized for their work.

AAPI is a broad term that encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island). 

The first proposals of AAPI month began as proposals in 1977 by Reps. Frank Horton of New York and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. Rep. Neither passed, so Rep. Horton introduced House Joint Resolution 1007 that proposed the week be designated to celebrate AAPI heritage. The joint resolution passed the House, the Senate and was signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978 to become Public Law 95-419. In 1990, Congress passed Public Law 101-283 that expanded the observance from a week to a month. In 1992, Congress passed Public Law 102-450 that annually designates May as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

As we celebrate this month, please keep in mind of the hate crimes against Asian Pacific Americans across the country that has risen due to COVID-19 misinformation and xenophobia. According to hate crime data published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339% in 2021 compared to 2020. As we fight for justice across all BIPOC communities, I ask you to maintain awareness of this issue. In the AAPI community, we strongly cherish and protect our elders. Sadly, the elderly are easy targets of hate crimes because they cannot fight back and or cannot understand. Witness a hate crime against an Asian Pacific American? Report the crime here.

Blackbird’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dashboard reports that Native Hawaiians & Pacific Islanders and Asians make up two and 3 percent of the company respectively. We may be small in numbers, but the passion we have for our diverse peoples, lands, the sea and cultures is immense and spreads beyond our physical reach. I am so honored to be a daughter of the sea, a descendant of Asian Pacific immigrants and to share my beautiful culture and stories with you all.

Pacific Islanders were the original storytellers. Oral storytelling has been in our cultures since ancient times, and the style mimics the weaving of fibers into rope. The past, the present and the future weave into one bond we each carry with us across the globe. Storytelling keeps our traditions, spirit, and cultures alive, and it’s something I take very seriously.

If you have the time and are interested, here are films and books I hold dearly to my heart that help elaborate my peoples’ stories. I chose to include movies that highlight Pacific Islanders, because I believe there isn't enough representation in mainstream media. The books I recommend are based on my personal readings and recommendations from friends. Most descriptions are written by me!

Sitting on top of a bench in the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, HI is Blackbird's Social Media Specialist Kilee Mendiola. Kilee is a mix of CHamoru, Melanesian, European and Japanese ancestry. She is smiling at the camera.
Sitting on top of a bench in the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, HI is Blackbird's Social Media Specialist Kilee Mendiola. Kilee is a mix of CHamoru, Melanesian, European and Japanese ancestry.

Films:

Island Soldier (2017)

  • A riveting documentary that genuinely captures the struggle Micronesians (Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands) face. Our people cannot vote for President, but we can serve in the U.S. military. Thousands of sons and daughters of the islands have served and died in the name of freedom when we have none back home. The U.S. military actively recruits and leads some of our people away from home in the hopes of better opportunities, more access to resources and representation on the national stage. This documentary takes place in Kosrae, a “recruiter’s paradise”. Kosrae is one of Guam’s Micronesian sister islands; what happens to on Kosrae happens on Guam and all other U.S. colonies.

A still image from the 2019 film "Vai" captures an older woman paddling on the sea towards a young girl fastening the rope attached to her boat.
Released in 2019, “Vai” is a gorgeous collection of stories spanning eight different islands in the Pacific.

Vai (2019)

  • A beautiful collection of eight shorts spanning the Pacific, tied together by a common thread of mana wahine—powerful women. The film is directed by nine Pacific women and depicts the authentic colors of our island people. “Vai” means water in the following Pacific countries where the film was made: Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kuki Airani (Cook Islands), Samoa, Niue and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Boy (2010)

  • Before Taika Waititi showed up on the list of every film buff’s favorite filmmakers, Taika Waititi wrote and directed Boy. The movie follows a young boy in New Zealand who vies for his absent father’s approval after his father is released from jail. It’s heartwarming, vulnerable, fun and, of course, contains Waititi’s wit that reminds me of my family’s style of humor.

Whale Rider (2002) 

  • Based on the 1987 novel The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, the film follows Kahu Apirana, a twelve-year-old Maori girl who proves to her grandfather that a woman can be chief of the tribe—the same tribe that claims descent from the legendary “whale rider” . The film is a great adaptation of the novel of the same name, but I highly recommend reading the novel because it follows three seemingly different but very related storylines—following the ancient storytelling method of blending the past, present, and future.

Kumu Hina (2014)

  • Another beautiful, tear-jerking documentary that follows the life of Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Native Hawaiian activist and teacher (and also the Haku Mo’olelo and narrator of this documentary). In Ancient Hawaiian tradition, mahu (in the middle) is a term for someone with both male and female characteristics and were highly respected and seen as the embodiment of each gender’s best traits. Not every mahu identifies as transgender or nonbinary and vice versa. Queer Pacific Islanders 

Once Were Warriors (1994)

  • TW: domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide, drugs, alcohol. A very gritty New Zealand drama based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Alan Duff. Featuring now Star Wars-favorite Temuera Morrison as an unemployed Maori with a temper and drinking problem. The film has been used to stereotype indigenous peoples’ relationship with alcohol, drugs, and domestic violence. But, it remains as a powerful film that captures colonialism’s impact on indigenous peoples everywhere.

Samoan Wedding (2006)

  • “To me, Pacific Islanders have an innate sense of comedy – they never take themselves too seriously and are always up for a laugh. Which is why Sione’s Wedding is so special to me, because it’s the first movie I saw where the story and characters revolved around Polynesians being funny. The premise of the film is simple and of its early 2000s time period: four largely immature friends are banned from their best friend’s wedding unless they can find girlfriends. It’s the Samoan Wedding Crashers meets The Hangover. What could go wrong?” Tali Aualiitia, Rotten Tomatoes

Moana (2016)

  • Disney gave Pacific Island kids Disney-approved heroes that look like them. Though I’m not a personal fan of Disney and their overall representation, I’m satisfied with Moana because the film encapsulates the Pacific style of ancestral storytelling, bold women leaders, traditions and our history as the original sea voyagers. “We Know the Way” and the ancestors’ scene make me cry every time.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

  • My VERY first stoner movie I saw when I was a kid (probably why I love being an AAPI stoner). Two Asian American stoners get the munchies and cook up an idea that leads to one of the most epic stoner road trip films ever.

Oral storytelling has been in our cultures since ancient times, and the style mimics the weaving of fibers into rope. The past, the present and the future weave into one bond we each carry with us across the globe.

Kilee Mendiola

Books:

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

  • Asian moms are the fiercest breed of women for good reason. This book shines a light on the thousands of untold stories immigrant families carry with them and try to pass onto their Americanized children. Amy Tan delivers a devastating but powerful look on the female Asian American experience. Additionally, the book is structured like a mahjong game, with four parts divided into four sections that create sixteen chapters in total.

The Properties of Perpetual Light by Julian Aguon

  • This book hits home, quite literally. It calls for justice while paying homage to the island where “America’s Day Begins”. If you want a briefing in what Guam and CHamorus are up against in the age modern colonization, this is a great pick and an introduction to how I feel about my home. Stories from the author's childhood are joined with a fresh political commentary on U.S. militarization and imperialism. The Properties of Perpetual Light is a heartbreaking ode to the beautiful but disappearing home the author, our people, and I share.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

  • A blend of memoir, cultural criticism and the history exposing the truth of radicalized consciousness in America. The author Cathy Park Hong draws from her personal experience as a daughter of Korean immigrants and lessons she has learned thus far being an Asian American woman in the 21st century world. A book that is currently on my “to-read” list but I highly recommend others start, as well.

Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine by Noura Erakat

  • West Asia is not typically recognized in the Western world as being part of the Asian continent. West Asia consists of Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, State of Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In order to liberate ourselves of colonized mindsets, I believe stepping outside of our personal worlds and learning marginalized peoples' stories are critical. After all, many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are immigrants and or the children of immigrants whose countries are still at the mercy of modern colonization. To begin this journey, a good friend of mine who is Palestinian recommended this book to me. Justice for Some analyzes the Question of Palestinian and settler colonization. It's a great book to begin educating yourself about Palestine’s past, present and future. 

Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis

  • A powerful book that provides comprehensive insight of systematic racism, intersectionality, imperialist policies and the plea for communities to work together to unmask the injustices that plague us all. World renowned activist and scholar Angela Davis takes a deep, personal dive into state terror in places such as Ferguson and Palestine. Davis reflects on the significance of black feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism and their direct ties to human liberation.

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