Okay, I’m not going to lie. Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is something new to me. Honestly, I didn’t even know it existed until just a couple years ago, and only because some Asian American celebrities did a few television promos during an NBA playoff game that I was watching. But even then, I still didn’t really know what it was all about.

So I did some digging around. To my surprise, I found out that the push for some sort of official AAPI recognition can be traced all the way back to the early 1970s. It wasn’t until 1992 that the federal government officially distinguished May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. However, by 2009, it was renamed to what we know it as today: AAPI Heritage Month.

What is AAPI heritage? And whose voices do we actually amplify when honoring those who have contributed to that heritage? Do we only celebrate celebrity triumphs like Michelle Yeoh’s recent Best Actress Academy Award win? Or the legacy of MLB slugger Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps? Or maybe some of us will just continue to embrace former San Francisco District Attorney and current Vice President, Kamala Harris, despite her significant contribution to the increase of California’s AAPI prisoner population.

Now don’t get me wrong, I totally adore Michelle Yeoh, and what true Seattle native doesn’t love Ichiro? Kamala Harris… ugh, not so much. But AAPI heritage shouldn’t just be about those already in the spotlight, right? Shouldn’t we also include those of us who fly under the radar? Those of us whose contributions have been lost in the margins for generations, yet whose impacts will continue to live on for many more generations to come?

That’s why this year for AAPI Heritage Month, “On the Fence Line,” and the voices that this column represents, have chosen to honor a visionary who I personally look up to as a mentor and elder and who rarely gets the credit he deserves. Introducing Andres “Andy” Pacificar.

Andy is the Filipino American mastermind behind the creation and founding of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG) in the early 90s at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC). At the time, there were no true resources for the prison’s growing population of AAPI inmates, many of whom were non-English speakers struggling with the traumas of a refugee’s journey.

“At CBCC alone, during a random 6-month period, the AAPI prisoner population went from two to like 30 in the blink of an eye,” said Andy, whose incarceration began in 1990. Due to both language barriers and gang rivalries, many of the newly incarcerated AAPI prisoners ran into conflicts with prisoners of other ethnicities and sometimes even with one another.

“We needed to do something to address the violence and reclaim our humanity… many of us were just victims of the system,” recalled Andy. 

Inspired by the desire for something better for himself and his fellow prisoners, Andy decided in 1991 to lay the foundation for what would eventually become APICAG, modeled after the already-established Black Prisoners Caucus (BPC).

Andres “Andy” Pacificar • Courtesy of Andy Pacificar

Andy wrote numerous proposals to prison officials for approval and attempted to reach the broader AAPI community for outside support. He quickly realized that he would receive no handouts and that if he wanted any improvement, he’d need to fully dedicate himself to the cause. Not only did the administration deny his proposals, making their skepticism clear, but the silence from the outside AAPI community led to feelings of “shame, guilt, and resentment.” While dealing with administration and community was one thing, convincing Andy’s peers to get on board was an enormous obstacle in itself.

“Not too many people bought in,” he said. “We were all used to being invisible in a room full of people. We began to internalize the negative labels the Department of Corrections placed on us. It was just easier to accept the status of ‘Other.’”

But it would take more than that to deter him from his goal.

After finally garnering some support from reluctant local staff and gaining some traction with his peers, Andy was able to get the attention of journalists at KOMO News. The growing support and media coverage meant his determination was finally paying off and in 1994, the APICAG was officially launched at CBCC — a huge accomplishment that Andy himself would not realize the significance of until decades later.

The celebration was short-lived. As retaliation for his advocacy work and other bogus allegations from administration, Pacific was sent to serve multiple stints in solitary confinement before eventually transferring to the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) in Walla Walla, Washington.

And the APICAG lived on. Though other AAPI cultural groups, such as the United Asian Coalition at the Washington State Reformatory and the Asian Reform Alliance at WSP, began operating at various facilities within the state penitentiary system, none have had the same lasting legacy as the APICAG.

Today, chapters of the APICAG function in some capacity at almost every prison facility in Washington State, helping to launch API Sisters, another organizing group in women’s prisons. Despite the lack of support from the Department of Corrections, APICAG and API Sisters have fought to make ethnic studies courses, youth outreach workshops, immigration seminars, social justice forums, anti-domestic violence programs, internalized oppression training, and accessible introductory courses on intersectional feminism available to the inmate population.

The APICAG also continues to work in solidarity with the BPC and Nuestro Grupo Cultural (formerly Hispanic Cultural Group) to combat racism and strive for a brighter tomorrow.

Although the APICAG continues to offer positive programs to members and the general prison population, its true impact has been its ability to become a platform for growth and genuine change — and a community space for radical love and resistance.

Andy at Washington State Penitentiary circa 1999 • Courtesy of Andy Pacificar

Billy Gumabon, the current president of APICAG at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC), speaks of Andy and his experience with APICAG fondly. “The space that Andy created in the 90s played a huge role in raising and molding me to the person I am today. I found meaning, purpose, and myself through the APICAG,” he said. 

APICAG vice president Francisco Sao added, “Andy is a pillar of our community.”

“Respect for the ones who helped to lay the foundation before us, one that moves with a powerful force, and love for the people,” said Time Meippen, APICAG’s secretary at SCCC.

Released from prison after 18 years on October 22nd, 2008, Andy is still changing lives today, both inside and outside of prison. He still advocates for the APICAG and is a member of Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT), an organization that provides reentry resources to prisoners facing deportation and those seeking general support. He also works as a Community Care Coordinator at the Freedom Project where he helps to guide youth who have been referred to the program by community advocates and teachers.

Andy, through his intoxicating humor and brutal honesty, will be the first to admit that his release from prison has not always been easy. Like many before him, and the many that will continue to face the same challenges, he still deals with the traumas of his incarceration. But just like the courage he showed for his peers back in the early 90s, those of us that are carrying the legacy of the APICAG will remain courageous for him. That’s what family does. That’s what Andy taught us. And our brother will never be alone.

As the former president of the CBCC chapter of APICAG and current senior advisor of the chapter at the Stafford Creek Correction Center (SCCC), I have seen firsthand how many lives the APICAG has positively impacted. I’m one of them. Because of Andy’s determination and willingness to step outside of what was popular in his time, he has laid the foundation for the success of incarcerated AAPIs statewide.

That’s an accomplishment that should never be taken for granted, and never will be.

“My mind has been blown by how far APICAG has come and the current work that is being done. I never thought any of this could be possible. I commend y’all and respect y’all so much. Y’all have created my legacy,” said Andy in a recent conversation we had.

No, old man… it’s YOU that have blown our minds. Thank you so much for all you’ve done and are continuing to do for our community today. We love you, Chooch!

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 via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, 191 Constantine Way, Aberdeen, WA 98520.

This article appeard on May 2, 2023 on International Examiner, https://iexaminer.org/on-the-fence-line-celebrating-unsung-hero-andres-pacificar-for-aapi-heritage-month/