Why did I know Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but never knew that the first Asians in North America were Filipinos who arrived as slaves on Spanish galleon ships in 1587? In fact, they landed on Chumash land, now known as Morro Bay, California.
I first learned about Christopher Columbus in preschool. Every year, there was a whole holiday dedicated to him. Yet, my first lessons in Asian American history did not happen until my second year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). My ability to take this class and eventually major in Asian American studies is a product of a half-century-long struggle to bring ethnic studies into the forefront of mainstream narratives and education. This fight exists today as many college students across the country still demand courses in ethnic studies. Harvard University alumni have been lobbying for a formalized ethnic studies program for nearly five decades. For many of us, this battle reflects our right to be protagonists in our own histories and to exist as part of the core curriculum.
Exclusion in education, history and media flattens complex, whole human beings into stereotypes. This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a “single story.” For people of color, this reduction of our humanity fuels racism and the miseducation of our youth.
A Movement to Reclaim History
Stemming from the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and early 1970s, ethnic studies emerged as a movement to decolonize thinking, histories and stories by reconnecting people of color to our timelines and ancestries. This movement simultaneously catalyzed people of color as well as forged politicized identities in higher education across groups like Indigenous Peoples, Chicano/as, Blacks and Asian Americans. That’s why to know the story of Asian American studies is to know the story of ethnic studies.
Watch “Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on the history of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today. Stream now.
1968 was a defining year for Asian Americans when the term “Asian American” was coined by historian Yuji Ichioka, framing a new social and political identity. Before this, words like “Oriental” and “Asiatic” were used to describe Asians in America. These are the same words that society used to describe rugs and generalized foreign food from Asia. That same year, Third World Liberation Front, a multiracial coalition of student groups, demanded representation in their education. This five-month strike led to the diversification of higher education institutions and the creation of ethnic studies, including Asian American studies. The first Asian American studies curricula were established at San Francisco State University (SFSU), University of California, Berkeley and UCLA. For California to be the backdrop to the origin story of Asian American studies is significant since the state has been the historic home to a number of major anti-Asian legislations and events.
Learn about the risks that young students took to fight for learning about their own histories in this clip from “Asian Americans.”
Racism in the Golden State
In the latter half of the 19th century, many Chinese immigrants escaped the unrest in China to journey towards “Gold Mountain,” a fabled notion describing the American promised land. Upon arrival, many found animosity and racism instead. One of the earliest legislations against the Chinese was the Foreign Miner’s Tax of 1850, which imposed a monthly fee of $20. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to $526.47 in today’s money.
Forcibly driven out of mining work, many Chinese immigrants took on low-wage labor in restaurants and laundries in San Francisco. Some took on the most dangerous duties of large labor projects like the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. To blast through mountainous terrain, Chinese workers risked their lives to detonate unstable bottles of nitroglycerine. Stemming from this tragic history is the idiomatic expression, “a Chinaman’s chance,” which means little or no chance at all. To further add insult to injury, when the railway was completed, a ceremony was held for driving the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. A historic photo was taken to commemorate the event, where all Chinese workers were excluded.
Locally, racism was spreading across cities like Los Angeles. Yellow peril fears coupled with White unemployment fueled brutal discrimination against Asians. On October 24, 1871, a race riot broke out when a mob of around 500 White and mestizo persons attacked and violently murdered 20 Chinese residents living on Calle de los Negros, present-day Los Angeles Street. The growing hatred eventually led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first national immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group. Though there is more to this narrative of anti-Asian sentiments, all of this happened to just one group before the 20th century in California.
Ethnic Studies Saves Lives
In learning Asian American history, I felt my timeline being restored. It was an awakening. For the first time, the context that I needed to understand myself and the world I lived in came together. It’s hard to explain how ethnic studies changes you, but many students can feel it.
Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director of Inclusive Action for the City recalls, “Ethnic studies was a literal tipping point in my career trajectory. Everything changed after Ethnic Studies 101.”
“Ethnic studies saved my life,” says Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Asian American studies professor at SFSU. She describes ethnic studies as a sacred space of finding self and solidarity. “All of a sudden my family became alive. My family became a part of my education. All of a sudden, I mattered.”
“Mixed Asian Ethnic Identity at UCLA was hands down, one of my favorite classes,” reflects Miki Reynolds, Executive Director of Grid110, a economic and community development nonprofit. “It made me feel seen and allowed me to find ways to explore and process my identity.”
For many people of color, ethnic studies is a transformative process. Through coursework and community, it creates space to address trauma and oppressions, while not forgetting the past. You also share lived experiences and celebrate the diversity of cultures. Once you see yourself in relation to everything around you, you begin to understand that there is a whole world of histories and narratives that includes more than just the select few: a history that now includes you.
There is a lineage to ethnic studies. One of my first lessons in my Asian American studies course was learning how to conduct oral history. What you learn, you pass on. Given the chronology of exclusion and erasure, this practice is essential. It keeps the movement alive by ensuring that history is not a single story.
Intergenerational mentorship and community building are core to this lineage of ethnic studies. I experienced this in my Asian American studies courses as my professors melded theory and practice. In a course series with Dr. Paul Ong, my class was one of the first to analyze 2000 U.S. Census data to make maps using Geographic Information Systems. Later, as part of a group project, I worked with Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) and helped designate Historic Filipinotown. I took courses like Youth Empowerment and Community Education with Professor Glenn Omatsu, who introduced me to organizations like Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), where I learned about the intersections of labor, youth, families and community. These are the skills I use today as I engage in policy and community work.
Youth and Critical Hope
The lineage of ethnic studies hopes that each generation listens and supports the next for a better tomorrow. Today, ethnic studies is being taught in K-12 classrooms. Researchers have found ethnic studies can help improve grades and increase higher education access. Ethnic studies teachers at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in Boyle Heights have organized their curricula to include a major project that engages students to develop their own stories. “Through these narratives, our scholars construct knowledge and become youth intellectuals,” write teachers Roxana Dueñas, Jorge López and Eduardo López. “Their work, once published, is used the following year in our Ethnic Studies classrooms as required text. We are now on our fourth student-book project, and these stories have become a crucial part of the curriculum and validate their lives as a necessary component to our program.” Like the student organizers before us, this lineage of ethnic studies scholarship demonstrates the boldest act of what the movement was intended to achieve: to write our own history and future.
As I enter my mid-career, I look back and think how much ethnic studies has changed my life and what I realized is that you don’t have to be a scholar of ethnic studies to be influenced by it. For those of us who have been activated by ethnic studies courses, that change alone can be seen multiple times over in the work that we do and how we engage with each other.
“Life is not what you alone make it,” said Yuri Kochiyama, the late civil rights leader in her book, “Passing It On.” “Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another.”