Asian Americans have improved the lives of fellow Americans in countless ways. But some of the biggest contributions don’t end up in history books.
After losing three fingers working at an Alaska cannery, Larry Itliong spent decades fighting for better pay and treatment for agricultural workers.
His work as a pioneering union leader helped generations of farm workers to come. Yet many Americans don’t know his name.
“Itliong became the great Filipino American historical omission,” reads a blog post for the Asian American Legal Defense Education Fund
“While (Cesar) Chavez is remembered as the farmworker icon, his name emblazoned on schools, parks, and roads, Itliong has been generally forgotten, treated by society as it seems Filipinos have always been treated. As nothing. But labor movement writers know that without Itliong, there would be no Chavez.”
In the 1960s, many California farmworkers toiled in abysmal conditions. The late Dawn Mabalon, professor of history at San Francisco State University, described field crews sharing just one tin cup of water
“You still had no bathrooms in the fields, poor wages, no workers’ comp, no unemployment, no Social Security,” she told the Food & Environment Reporting Network
Itliong said Filipinos in the fields were paid particularly low wages — often netting less than 75 cents for an eight-hour day.
(That’s about $5.47 a day now, when adjusted for inflation.)
So Itliong, who was the leader of the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led farm workers on a strike. He also reached out to Chavez, leader of the National Farm Workers Association, which later joined the strike.
“That became the grape strike of 1965 that drew worldwide attention and support and ultimately led to the unionization, at long last, of California’s farm workers,” wrote longtime labor writer Dick Meister
“It was Larry Itliong and his Filipino members who started it all, and who played an indispensable role throughout the struggle,”
“Without them there could not have been a strike. Without them, there could not have been the victory of unionization, without them no right for the incredibly oppressed farm workers to bargain with their employers.”
Ai-jen Poo is fighting for domestic workers, the elderly and disabled Americans
By age 40, Ai-jen Poo had already launched several organizations to protect and improve working conditions for some of the most vulnerable Americans.
She started Domestic Workers United, which fought for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
in New York state. The groundbreaking law, signed in 2010, guaranteed at least one day off from work each week; three paid days off a year; and overtime pay for those who worked extra hours.
“The bill was a historic victory. For the first time in any state, domestic workers were included in all of the major labor laws protecting other workers,” according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance
, an organization for which Poo, a Taiwanese American
, now serves as executive director.
But the work is not done.
“Many domestic workers do not earn a living wage and work without access to health care
, paid sick days or paid time off,” the alliance says.
“Because of domestic workers’ unique workplaces — inside other people’s homes — the struggles domestic workers face are largely out of the public spotlight. Domestic workers take care of what is most important to us, yet they are often the least valued and the most vulnerable.”
About 2.5 million domestic workers
take care of children, keep houses clean and provide care for disabled and elderly Americans, according to the alliance. And as Baby Boomers age, the need for domestic workers and fair conditions are paramount.
So Poo also co-founded Caring Across Generations
, which works to expand accessibility to quality care and ensure care providers are able to support their own families.
“We’re living longer than ever before, and we can’t always expect family members to give up everything to care for us,” the nonprofit says.
“It’s time for policies that support both seniors and people with disabilities who need care, and the families and professional caregivers who care for them.”
Ajay Bhatt got ‘rock star treatment’ for helping invent USB
Imagine hauling around discs or messing with chunky plugs and cords when you wanted to transfer data between computers or simply use your mouse.
Those annoyances could have lasted much longer if not for Ajay Bhatt, coinventor of USB (universal serial bus) — a compact technology that connects many types of digital devices and computers
“I was totally surprised by how it has impacted everybody,” Bhatt told CNN
“I truly get a rock star treatment and that is quite unusual to me — people asking for your signature, people asking for your picture.”
Bhatt, an Indian American
, said he wanted to make it easier to use digital devices by nixing excess equipment and improving mobility.
Before USB technology, plugs and ports were often huge
. A computer could have one cable communicating with the keyboard and another with
a modem. A different cable talked to the printer, while yet another linked the hard drive to the monitor.
“It was more difficult than it needed to be,” Bhatt said.
“It was very difficult for the average person to use it. All the technology at that point was developed for technologists by technologists.”
For six years Bhatt lobbied colleagues at Intel and then other computer firms, trying to get support for the USB idea.
“Initially, it was difficult for them to understand the merits,” Bhatt said. “We had a big tent and we included everybody, we listened to everybody’s input and tried to address them to the best of our abilities. And that’s why USB is successful.”
While he’s most famous for the invention that streamlines much of our technology, Bhatt has helped create far more than just USB.
Yuri Kochiyama helped get justice after Japanese American internment
As a young woman in her early 20s, Yuri Kochiyama’s life came to an abrupt halt when the US government forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans
into internment camps during World War II
She spent several years interned, even as her twin brother was risking his life as a US soldier during World War II, wrote Diane Fujino, author of “Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama.”
Kochiyama started an extensive letter-writing campaign for thousands of Japanese American soldiers fighting for the US — even as their family members suffered discrimination and internment back home.
Despite exceptional bravery on the battlefield
, many “Japanese American soldiers, such as the 100th (Infantry Battalion) and the 442nd (Infantry Regimental Combat Team) are often overlooked in the history of World War II,” according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation
After the war ended, Kochiyama spent several decades fighting for civil rights. In the 1960s, she befriended and worked with Malcolm X
. She was the one famously photographed cradling Malcolm X’s head after he was fatally shot
She pushed for passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized and gave reparations to surviving Japanese Americans who were interned. The act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
But Kochiyama also drew ire and widespread criticism, especially in her later years when she said she admired Osama bin Laden
Despite her divisive comments and complicated legacy, one of Kochiyama’s most famous quotes offered a blueprint for understanding other points of view:
“Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people,” she said. “You’ll learn something from everyone.”
Eric Yuan helped us Zoom with loved ones we couldn’t visit
What started as a way to host business meetings unexpectedly became a crucial way for Americans to stay connected
during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thanks to Zoom, families saw loved ones they weren’t able to visit. Students could keep up with their schoolwork
even when their schools were shut down. Friends and relatives safely attended weddings, funerals and birthday parties when they otherwise might not have been able to.
Zoom Video Communications was started in California by a Chinese immigrant whose attempts to come to America were repeatedly denied.
Eric Yuan applied for an H-1B visa to come to the US but was rejected. And then again. And again after that. Yuan applied eight times before finally accepted into the US in 1997. He was 27 years old.
“I knew two things from my father: keep working hard, stay humble, and someday you’ll be OK,” Yuan told CNN Business
He could barely speak English when he first got to the US and still has a thick Chinese accent. Former colleagues at WebEx, where Yuan worked before launching Zoom, said he was repeatedly overlooked
during his first years in America.
“I saw a tremendous amount of unconscious bias against Eric because he didn’t look the part, he didn’t sound the part,” said David Knight, a former VP of Product Management at WebEx
, the corporate predecessor to Cisco Webex.
After Cisco acquired WebEx in 2007, Yuan “spent a lot of time talking to customers and found out that most customers using WebEx were not happy,” he told Forbes
columnist Peter High in 2017.
So Yuan repeatedly asked to overhaul the platform, but his pitches were rejected. After a year of nagging his bosses to let him rebuild Webex, according to Forbes
, Yuan left Cisco in 2011.
“We thank Eric for his time at Cisco,” a company spokesperson told CNN Business
Yuan took his ideas for improvement and started Zoom.
“We are a very proud American company,” Yuan said
. “I’m a Chinese American. I truly believe … as long as you do the right thing, sooner or later they will know it.”
But just as millions of Americans have relied heavily on Yuan’s platform, Asian Americans have been spat on, attacked and erroneously blamed for the pandemic
. Some have been violently beaten
in public or even killed
as racism and ignorance spread.
In reality, many Asian Americans are trying to make life better for all Americans during this pandemic. That includes Yuan.
“In 10 to 20 years,” he said, “when people write the history of Covid-19, I want them to write that Zoom did the right thing for the world.”
CNN’s Jon Sarlin contributed to this report.