We Are Here

30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Shaped the United States


By Naomi Hirahara

Illustrated by Illianette Ferandez

By Smithsonian Institution

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A stunning anthology licensed in partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, We Are Here celebrates 30 of the most inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in U.S. history. 

There are more than 23 million people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent living in the United States. Their stories span across generations, as well as across the world. We Are Here highlights thirty Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the impact they’ve had on the cultural, social, and political fabric of the United States.

Profiles include: Amanda Nguyen * Bruno Mars * Grace Lee Boggs * Lakshmi Singh * Naomi Osaka * Philip Vera Cruz * Vishavjit Singh * Shirin Neshat * Thenmozhi Soundararajan * Schuyler Miwon Hong Bailar * Channapha Khamvongsa * Lydia XZ Brown * Etel Adnan * Chien-Shiung Wu * Jerry Yang * Carissa Moore * Craig Santos Perez * Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson * Eddie Aikau * John Kneubuhl * Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner * Keanu Reeves * Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu * Manny Crisostomo * Momi Cazimero * Teresa Teaiwa * Mau Piailug * Taimane Gardner * Calvin and Charlene Hoe * Dinah Jane



by Theodore S. Gonzalves

We are here… because you were there. That sentence has become shorthand for a number of experiences—sojourns, migrations, and movements. It can certainly be used to trace that long arc of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) stories that this book suggests through individual portraits. Who is the “you” in that sentence? Take a look at Loni Ding’s fantastic three-part documentary called Ancestors in the Americas. The first episode is titled “Coolies, Settlers, and Sailors: Voyage to the New World.” It helped to rearrange my thinking about my family’s personal journey from the Philippines to the United States. But it did much more. It demonstrated the need for all of us to think more critically about where and when “we” entered this evolving American story. Ding stepped back centuries and widened the frame, making global connections to AAPI routes and roots. These journeys were not just to the United States, but to the Americas as a hemisphere. One of the historians Ding interviewed for the program reminded viewers that Europe had had Asia on its mind for centuries. So much so, an Italian sailor was financed by Spanish funds in the search for an elusive passage to the “Orient.” He landed in what’s now called the Bahamas and thought he was in the “Indies.” And consider how the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, commissioned Lewis and Clark’s expedition to find an overland path to the Pacific Coast and commerce.

Our stories have been woven into the hemisphere for centuries. With the formal end of the global trade of enslaved Africans in the early 1800s, Indians and Chinese were sent to the Americas as replacement labor. From 1565 to 1815, a grand galleon trade route linked Nagasaki, Macau, Malacca, and Goa to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp, Havana, Panama, Rio, and Lima—with everything anchored between Manila and Acapulco. We’ve been here.

The year 2022 marks the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s twenty-fifth year of researching, documenting, and sharing AAPI stories. We Are Here is the perfect opportunity to acknowledge the diversity and pace of our communities’ growth. Beyond the global cities we’ve called home—Honolulu, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City—you’re just as likely to find our families and networks in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Little Rock, Houston, and Madison. Numbering more than twenty-four million persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing racial group in the country. Of the ten most commonly spoken languages in US homes other than English and Spanish, four hail from Asia. We’re everywhere.

When the Asian American movement was in full swing, poet-activists like Janice Mirikitani—a Stockton, California–born daughter of farmers—gave us a powerful vision of how to think about the expanse and beauty of our communities. In a poem called “Firepot,” she wrote about our routes and roots: “… we have been fractured / made to look at each other / as though we are / divided / but if we see with clear eyes, we know we are bound by common shackles:

Manila to Vietnam

Korea to Laos          China to the Islands

Hiroshima to Cambodia          Post St. to Hunters Pt.

Kearney St. to Richmond          Mission to the Valley

Bound by our Survival

Bound by our Strengths…”


by Lisa S. Sasaki

We Are Here: 30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Shaped the United States will introduce you to members of diverse communities and their stories of resilience, adversity, and joy. It is my honor to be a part of a book that will reach readers like you across the United States, sharing stories that I have been proud to learn more about as director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. These stories make our work at the Smithsonian stronger and more inclusive. They also reflect fuller American stories that all readers deserve to see.

This book came together during a difficult time for our communities. The global spread of COVID-19 led to incidents of hate and bias against Asian American elders, women, and young adults. These heartbreaking incidents prompted the center and the Smithsonian to think about how we could better support our communities and the nation. We created a virtual care package, filled with meditations, short films, and musical performances created by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We also developed new resources for teachers and caregivers about the impacts of negative stereotypes on AAPI communities and how to unlearn these biases. Sadly, these incidents are not new but part of a longer American history that we don’t often learn about in school.

It is my hope that these thirty profiles of incredible AAPIs introduce you to stories that you did not know before. I also hope these profiles spark conversations with your family, friends, and classmates about why AAPI stories are important to learn. As you read the following pages, you may be surprised by who you see in this book. Because we value inclusion and solidarity, you’ll read the stories of Pacific Islanders and Arab Americans. Their experiences have not always been visible in AAPI accounts, yet Pacific Islander, Arab American, and Persian American experiences are deeply intertwined and representative of AAPI communities and identities. We selected thirty profiles that speak to our global connections and histories, but they are not reflective of all AAPI stories. There are 22 million Asian Americans and 1.5 million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. In Hawai‘i alone, 700,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live there today. While you’ll meet inspiring activists, artists, musicians, actors, writers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, this is just a start. There are many more stories to tell.

We thank our colleagues at Hachette Group/Running Press Kids and Smithsonian Enterprises for telling these stories with the Asian Pacific American Center. We thank Jill Corcoran at Smithsonian Enterprises and Allison Cohen at Running Press for believing in our vision for this book. Special thanks to our colleague Sojin Kim at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Finally, acknowledgment must also go to the center’s staff for their many contributions and leadership on this project: Theodore S. Gonzalves, Andrea Kim Neighbors, Healoha Johnston, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Kālewa Correa, Adriel Luis, Nafisa Isa, Wendy Kennedy, Marynissa Pedroza, Catherine Lee, and Mary Woodward.

Etel Adnan


Learning to communicate in different languages was part of Etel Adnan’s childhood in her birthplace of Beirut, the capital of a newly created Lebanon. Her father was a Syrian Muslim and her mother a Greek Christian. After World War I, French and British military powers colonized regions in Southwest Asia and North Africa and forcefully redefined long-standing government structures under their nation-states. Etel grew up speaking Greek and Turkish at home, French at a Catholic convent school, and Arabic on the street.

For me, [painting] was a new language, a new world.

Etel was interested in becoming an engineer or architect, but she was discouraged from doing so because she was a girl. While Etel was in school in Beirut, a centuries-old city known as an intellectual and cultural hub, a teacher introduced her to many important French poets, and she began writing poems about the sun and sea in French. She studied philosophy at the University of Paris and stayed in France until the early years of the Algerian War of Independence. In 1955 Etel, dismayed with France’s treatment of the colonized people in North Africa, left Europe to study at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard. “I didn’t want to read French or write it; it was like a boycott, a rejection,” said Etel.

While teaching at a small Catholic college in Northern California, Etel adopted a new language: painting. She applied paint directly from the tube on a canvas and created squares of color with a palette knife. Etel then moved from exclusively abstract forms to working with accordion-folded sketchbooks in which she mixed drawings with writing and poetry. Tapestries integrated with colors from the Persian rugs of her youth also became part of her signature work. Inspired by poets protesting the Vietnam War, she returned to writing and published a collection of poems, Moonshots, in English in 1966. In the 1970s she moved to an area north of San Francisco marked by a majestic peak, Mount Tamalpais, inspiring a series of creative works, both visual and written.

In 1977 she wrote a novel, Sitt Marie Rose, based on a true story of a Lebanese woman kidnapped by soldiers during the civil war in Lebanon. A heralded representation of war literature, the novel has been translated into ten languages. In her writings, Adnan questioned how power and oppression exist in social situations. She often considered gender roles as well as political dynamics between Indigenous, displaced, and settler groups to share stories about human migration, liberation, and borders.

Etel’s paintings have been acquired and displayed in museums across the world. She published many books in English and French, wrote plays, and made movies. In the same way that her life spanned multiple countries, the products of her artistic expression knew no boundaries.

Eddie Aikau


Eddie Aikau, the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of O‘ahu in Hawai‘i, dedicated his life to helping others. The third of six children, Eddie first surfed the waves of Hawai‘i on a wooden board called a paipo, as his Hawaiian ancestors did. Since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by agents backed by the US military in 1893, Native Hawaiian people have been alienated within their own homelands. The water was a place of freedom for Eddie.

Walls Beach, a popular spot for local families in Waikīkī, was where Eddie formed a relationship with the waves on his paipo and then foam and resin surfboards of the 1960s. By age seventeen, he was one of the top surfers in Hawai‘i. The more challenging waves, however, were on the North Shore of O‘ahu, an area taken over by non-Hawaiian surfers.

In 1965 a surf championship, named in honor of the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, was established on the North Shore. It was an invitational, and Eddie was eager to compete. Despite his talent, he wasn’t invited—in fact, hardly any Native Hawaiians were. Most of the surfers were non-Hawaiian, and many of them were from outside of Hawai‘i. This was a bitter reminder that while surfing had been developed by Native Hawaiians, discriminatory practices excluded them from the sports of their ancestors.

Eddie didn’t give up. He was invited the following year and finished sixth. One day forty-foot waves hit the North Shore, and Eddie surfed them. These giant swells soon attracted surfers of various skill levels across the globe. Some were overwhelmed by the dangerous conditions at Waimea Bay and drowned. Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi sent out a call for an experienced waterman to watch over the surfers, and in 1967 Eddie accepted his new role on the North Shore as a lifeguard. Out of five hundred rescues over eleven years, he did not lose a single swimmer or surfer.

I did it for all the Hawaiians.


  • "An excellent introduction that makes clear the richness and diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities."—Kirkus Reviews, starred
  • “Really beautiful collection of biographies that shows a wide range of experiences and identities. Includes reflection guide with questions, links, and a glossary. An essential purchase.”—SLJ Teen Librarian Toolbox

On Sale
Oct 18, 2022
Page Count
128 pages
Running Press Kids

Naomi Hirahara

About the Author

Naomi Hirahara is the award-winning author of history books, mysteries, and YA fiction. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and curator of historical exhibitions, she received her B.A. in international relations from Stanford University. Her nonfiction book Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor won the Bruckman Award for Excellence from the Los Angeles Public Library. Her MG book, 1001 Cranes, was awarded honorable mention in youth literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association. Her Edgar Award-winning Mas Arai mystery series has been translated into Japanese, French and Korean. 

Sarah Demonteverde is a Filipino-American illustrator and designer based in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Combining her love for the vividness of life and unique narratives, she enjoys illustrating nature, culture, fantasy, and other enjoyable subject matter. She has illustrated several books including Hi’iaka and Pana’ewa: A Hawaiian Graphic Legend and You’re More than a Sprout. When she’s not drawing, she enjoys gardening, playing Hawaiian slack-key guitar, cooking, spending time with family, and searching up all the diverse eateries LA has to offer.

Learn more about this author