Asian American & Pacific Islander Changemakers

Meet 6 inspiring Asian American & Pacific Islanders who responded to challenging moments in history in extraordinary ways.

Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In times of tension and turmoil, these six changemakers made a difference during difficult circumstances. As we face a rise in violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, we reflect on these historical stories and what we can learn from them today.

Antero Cabrera during World’s FairCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet Antero Cabrera

Antero Cabrera is a young Igorot boy born in the mountains of the Luzon, Philippines during the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power.

He challenges the model of the hierarchical anthropological exhibit by using his participation as an opportunity to pursue his personal goals.

1904 St. Louis World's Fair Group Photo by Clemens RadauerCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Cabrera speaks Igorot, Tagalog, Spanish, and English and begins working as an interpreter in his teenage years.

In 1904, Cabrera decides to travel to the U.S. as part of the Igorot exhibit at the World's Fair in St. Louis.

1904 St. Louis World's Fair Map by Library of CongressCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Map of Exhibits at World's Fair

The 1904 World's Fair heralds the arrival of the U.S. on the global stage as a technologically advanced imperial power.

The Philippine Exhibit

An integral component of this display is to juxtapose the modern U.S. nation with a sensationalized interpretation of the "primitive" nature of the U.S.'s newest territory: the Philippines.

Photograph of Antero CabreraCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

For Cabrera and his community, this means leaning into Igorot practices most shocking to an American audience for their delight, judgement, and entertainment, whether it be their clothes, housing, or customs around food.

After the 1904 World's Fair, Cabrera continues to participate in traveling Igorot exhibits into his adult years.

While the exhibit programmers may have their agenda, Cabrera also has his own.

Portrait of Antero CabreraCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

For Cabrera, he uses the opportunity to explore a wider world that previously was not open to him. The exhibitions are an opportunity to explore the world, meet new individuals, and make a living using his intellect, skills, and abilities to build a life for his family.

The Tape Family by Alisa KimCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet the Tape Family

Before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), there was Tape v. Hurley. Mary and Joseph Tape are two Chinese immigrants who meet, marry, and start a family in San Francisco, California.

Their fight for their childrens' right to an education challenges the U.S. education system.

The Tape Family by Alisa KimCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In 1884, their daughter Mamie Tape  is denied admission to a local school because she is Chinese.

Mary Tape’s Letter by Daily Alta CaliforniaCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

"Chinese Mother's Letter"

Mary Tape is incensed. She writes a an impassioned letter in the Daily Alta California decrying this decision. The Tape family goes on to sue both the San Francisco Board of Education and the principal of the school.

Close Up of Mary Tape’s Letter by Daily Alta CaliforniaCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

An excerpt from Mary Tape's letter

Dear sirs: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the Public schools. Dear sirs, Will you please tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese?

Chinese Primary School Portrait by Isaiah TaberCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Tape family wins the landmark case, Tape v. Hurley, which guarantees Chinese children the right to a public school education.

However, Mamie never enrolls at her local school. 

After the court decision, the school district builds a separate school for Chinese children, the Chinese Primary School.

Larry Itliong by TopfotoCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet Larry Itliong

Modesto “Larry” Itliong is from the Ilocano region of the Philippines, an area that sends thousands of laborers to the U.S. to fill the void left by restrictions on emigration from Asia. He is only 15 when he leaves. He eventually becomes a leading labor organizer in California.

Grape Pickers Strike In Delano, California (1968) by Arthur SchatzLIFE Photo Collection

Itliong lives a nomadic life working in Alaskan canneries and picking crops in South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and California, founding unions along the way. He settles in Stockton, California and becomes President of the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).

Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez by AP Archives / ImagesCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Delano Grape Strike of 1965

In the September of 1965,  the Filipino grape workers in Delano, California go on strike, led by Itliong and AWOC.

However, the Filipino workers have a problem.

When Filipino workers go on strike, farmers bring in Mexican workers to replace them, pitting the workers against each other.

Itliong reaches out to the National Farm Workers Association, led by the charismatic Cesar Chavez, and a partnership is born.

By Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

Alongside leaders like Philip Vera-Cruz and Dolores Huerta, the strike spans more than five years and prompts an international grape boycott.

The ask: better wages and working conditions.

Farm Workers on StrikeCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Their efforts lead to the formation of the United Farm Workers of American (UFW) union.

The Delano Grape Strike remains the iconic labor struggle of the 20th century.

Lily Lee AdamsCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet Lily Lee Adams

Lily Lee Adams is the daughter of an Italian American mother and a Chinese American father.

A veteran of the American War in Vietnam, Lee Adams channels her experience to  become an outspoken advocate for mental health and veterans' rights.

Lily Lee Adams with PatientCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

As a young girl, Lee Adams dreams of being a ballet dancer, but ends up in the more practical field of nursing.

Although her father served in WWII, he never imagined a military career for his daughter.

Lily Lee Adams in Army UniformCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In 1969, Lee Adams enlists as an Army nurse and is sent to Vietnam. She is stationed at the busiest hospital in the country: the 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi. The hospital is located within miles of the Communist stronghold of Nui Ba Den and is under constant attack.

Lily Lee Adams in Nurse UniformCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Lee Adams is one of more than 85,000 Asian Americans who serve in the Armed Forces during the American War in Vietnam.

After returning home, Lee Adams struggles with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She joins Veterans Against the Vietnam War and becomes an advocate and activist for Veterans' rights.

She now counsels veterans and their families and does PTSD education and outreach.

K. Oanh Ha Being Interviewed by Asian AmericansCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet Oanh Ha

In 1998, Ha is a young reporter in Silicon Valley starting at the Mercury News.

As a Vietnamese American woman in the journalism industry, she works to center and empower marginalized voices in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities through her writing.

LIFE Photo Collection

With the tech industry booming, Ha finds herself writing about engineers from China, India, and Vietnam who are making groundbreaking strides in a new industry.

Yahoo! Employees by Zuma PressCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

However, juxtaposed with these success stories, Ha sees a second group of immigrants struggling behind-the-scenes. These workers complete the manufacturing work on PC boards in factories and late at night at home.

Ha realizes their stories are not being told.

K. Oanh Ha and Family by K. Oanh HaCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Ha is from a Vietnamese American refugee family that immigrates to the U.S. after the American War in Vietnam. Growing up in Santa Ana, she remembers assisting her parents with garment industry piecework after school.

As she dives deeper into the rapidly developing tech world of Silicon Valley, Ha sees her family in the immigrant laborers soldering wires and putting transistors onto printed circuit boards sometimes for as low as 1 penny per component.

Silicon Valley Workers by Getty ImagesCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Partnered with a senior reporter, Ha dives into the world of Vietnamese Americans doing piecework on computer components in ways that clearly violate labor laws. Their reporting uncovers individuals not being paid minimum wage, child labor, and unsafe working environments.

Ha works to bring a voice to these individuals' stories and rights in a way that respects the stories of the individuals who opened up to her.

Corky Lee with Camera Gear by Lindsey WatsonCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Meet Corky Lee

Throughout his prolific career, photographer and activist Corky Lee captures the momentous and the minutiae of Asian American life. In doing so, he recenters the lives and contributions of Asian Americans in the American story.

Celebrating Transcontinental Railroad Completion by Stanford University LibraryCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Lee’s interest in photography begins when he sees a photo depicting the completion of the transcontinental railroad in a history textbook. Despite making up the majority of workers, the Chinese immigrants who worked to construct the railroad are excluded from the photo.

Spike 150 Group Photo by Lindsey WatsonCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

At the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion in 2019, Lee recreates the famous photo with Asian Americans at the forefront, including descendants of Chinese railroad workers.

Corky Lee Taking Photo by Lindsey WatsonCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

 Lee works to correct this photographic omission and re-center the contributions of these early Chinese Americans.

In January 2021, Lee passes away due to complications from COVID-19. 

His work is remembered for inspiring generations of Asian Americans and allowing them to see themselves as an integral part of the American story.

Asian Americans Series Title Card by Asian American Series (2020)Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Learn more!

To learn more about these stories and others, check out the five-part television series Asian Americans on PBS.org!

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps