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NEWS | May 31, 2024

May: A month of renewal and celebration for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander heritage

By Cpl. Isaac Copeland 220th Public Affairs Detachment

May is the start of something new, a time for renewal. As winter fades, growth takes over everything and brings the world back to life, a fresh start and new beginning.

This idea of a new beginning is particularly relevant this month as May is recognized as Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This month is a time to celebrate and honor the contributions and achievements of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, while also acknowledging the challenges and discrimination they have faced.

Originally called only Asian American Pacific Islander Month, this celebration can be traced back to 1978, when Congress proclaimed the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week.

In 1992, the week-long observance was expanded to the entire month, officially designating May as Asian American Pacific Islander Month. Only a few months after his presidency began in 2021, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. included Native Hawaiians in the month's title, changing it to Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders Month (AANHPI).

Jeku Arce, a public affairs officer in the U.S. Army, is proud to celebrate this month of beginnings. Born in Kuwait in the Middle East, Arce’s parents were first-generation immigrants from The Philippines. Two years after his birth, the Arce family immigrated to California, settling in a community of other families from The Philippines.

“The idea of the American dream seemed like a great idea,” Arce explained. “My parents wanted to establish their careers, set up a new home with friends and family nearby and earn enough money to send some back to The Philippines to support their relatives.”

Arce grew up with three different languages: Arabic, Filipino and English. Going to school in America meant seeing and experiencing multitudes of cultures in a huge melting pot.

“The part where I always had an issue with, is, where do I really belong?” Arce continued. “I felt that I didn’t know where my roots were so, I was always confused. Am I more Filipino, more American? I wish I could tell myself, ‘Just take it in. It’s all you.’”

Like many immigrants, Arce was determined and ambitious. Still a teenager, Arce accepted an Army ROTC Nursing scholarship at California State University Fresno and graduated after four years of schooling, where the average nursing student takes five years to complete. Shortly after, Arce was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps and passed his National Council Licensure Examination, the nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses. Coming from a culture of people who give high regard to job titles, it was not only encouraged, but it was also expected to have a STEM-based job.

“Being an Army Nurse Corps officer, I fulfilled the dreams of both my parents. My mother wanted me to be a nurse to continue the family tradition and my father wanted me to join the military, something he couldn’t do in his career,” Arce said of his parents.
Arce maintained a career with the Army, traveling to different places and seeing different traditions and ways of life from around the world.

“I started connecting with Filipino officers and enlisted service members to better understand how our culture fits into American military culture,” Arce explained of his early years in the Army. “The biggest thing is finding those cultural reference connections from within the service - it’s made me drawn closer to military experience.”

Finding a community in the military that shared a background with Arce was important. In Filipino culture, as well as many Asian American cultures, family and community is given priority, and being around people who shared similar cultural backgrounds and experiences makes it easy to find oneself quickly at home.

“The place that I felt the most cultural disconnect was when I was stationed in Germany. I was stationed in Germany on active-duty, 2014 to 2016. It was so different from any other place I’ve lived before. To better connect with the German culture, I took a German language class, visited historical landmarks and spoke with locals to learn their perspective on their values and beliefs. Through these efforts, I was able to gain better cultural self-awareness.”

The Army Officer applied, and was accepted, for a new position in the Army Reserve as a public affairs officer in 2016 in the 7th Mission Support Command in Kaiserslautern, Germany. A unique and creative position in the military, public affairs officers oversee communication strategy, media relations, community outreach, content creation and more for an assigned unit. Arce also leverages his civilian headshot photography and digital marketing expertise with his public affairs assignments.

Now an Army Reserve Ambassador Program Manager for the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve, Arce works to promote the Army Reserve by managing ambassadors as a gateway between the Army Reserve and the local community. Staying in the military gave Arce a larger opportunity to be active in the community and to get in touch with his cultural roots.

This year, Arce was invited to attend the White House Celebration of Asian Americans Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, a historic community-wide celebration that commemorates 25 years since the creation of the White House Initiative and the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. This event, held on May 13, recognized the successes and historic milestones made by the community since the initiative was established.

A panel of speakers, some as young as 12 and 16, were present at the heritage celebration, which included famous entertainers, chefs and past advocates for AANHPI. Many talked about their own struggles and the systemic barriers to equity, justice, and opportunity that still put the American dream out of reach for far too many AA and NHPI people across the United States.

“Being at the [White House Celebration for AANHPI] made me feel validated about who I was trying to be as an as an Asian American because I was able to connect with those who had similar experiences as me,” Arce said. “I am not alone, I have a whole community to support me.”

Arce intends on continuing to immerse in the community and honor the heritage this month represents. May is indeed the start, a new beginning. It is a time for the Asian American Pacific Islander community to come together, to celebrate their heritage, and to pave the way for a brighter future. As we come to the end of this month of renewal and growth, let us remember the resilience and strength of the AANHPI community, and let us continue to support and uplift one another in the pursuit of equality and justice.