For generations, cultural awareness groups operating within the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) have been hosting annual banquets. In the past, this was always a time to reconnect with family, showcase our culture with traditional dances and songs, celebrate our accomplishments, and give thanks for surviving yet another grueling year in prison. And yes, there’s the “good” food that we on the inside only get once a year.
Each year, the DOC becomes more restrictive, doing everything in their power to co-opt and hijack these events. What was once a space that belonged to cultural awareness groups and community has now turned into another opportunity for the DOC to impose its will and reinforce its authority, not to mention its propensity to utilize these events as photo ops to create an illusion that they actually care about genuine cultural identity.
Even as Asian Pacific Islander (API) prisoners raised funds, spending months in preparation for a banquet on October 28th at the Washington Corrections Center, the DOC reminded us who they believe should be in charge of these events. While many of us thought the banquet would be hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), administration demanded we remove any mention of our group name, instructing us to paint over the words ‘cultural awareness group’ on a banner that was ordered and paid for by the community.
The use of these words was also why I was restricted from speaking at the event. My speech was denied because it wasn’t considered “culture,” but rather an advertisement for a group that administration had allegedly never heard of. One staff member, who claimed they’re “heavily involved in community,” told me that because they’d never heard of APICAG, it does not exist. When I responded that I actually speak of APICAG in my speech, they responded that they hadn’t even read it… even though their administration had just denied it!
Instead of dishonoring our legacy and defacing our banner, we’ve decided to send it back out to the community, where it can be properly honored and cared for. What follows is what I planned to say at the banquet.
Until next time, keep dreaming.
For those new to the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group, the APICAG was founded by Andres “Andy” Pacificar in the early ‘90s at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, born out of necessity when there were no true resources for a growing population of API prisoners — many of whom were non-English speakers and still struggling with the traumas of a refugee’s journey.
Now, with chapters statewide, we provide our members with a platform for true growth and liberation through cultural preservation, while building community and creating safe spaces for healing. And we continue to be united by the love for our people, a radical love for ourselves, and a hope for something better.
Historically, things haven’t always been easy for APICAG members. Not only have we had to survive discrimination that is nothing new to immigrant communities, but we also have constantly had to persevere through generations of administrative attacks and claims that our people are a Security Threat Group (STG). Essentially telling us that the very color of our skin and our beautiful culture was, and is, a crime.
I reject that, and always will. I know that our people are more than what the “whitestream” media wants us to believe about ourselves. We are more than the docile nerds in movies or Gangster #6 from Rush Hour 2. We are more than egg foo yung and orange chicken. More than, “Me love you long time,” and, “Do you want to hear about the seafood special today?”
We are a strong community, built off the hard work and legacies of people that have sacrificed in order for us to even be sitting here today — acknowledged as human beings. Having to survive retaliation just for having the audacity to dream of freedom and something better for the future. Solitary confinement — something that has become all too familiar for many of us.
That’s what APICAG represents to me. Not only a family that has welcomed me with open arms, but a legacy of fighting for our people, no matter the cost, and no matter the battlefield. As we dance and sing our traditional songs, we tell stories of this resistance, and continue to protect our culture and our autonomy. And we can’t stop doing that. Because to live without knowing yourself is not a life at all.
We are not a volunteer group or an STG. We are a community of survivors. And we will always survive as long as we have one another. Because everyday we survive, is another day we can resist — and another day we can love Sending love to our members in solitary confinement. Sending love to all our chapters. Sending love to our founders.
Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, PO Box 900, Shelton, WA 98584