Underneath a canopy decorated with colorful papel picado — “perforated paper,” a form of Mexican folk art — youth carried and arranged trays of food onto long tables, ready to serve to the waiting crowd at Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility.
The trays held beans with chorizo, seasoned chicken, carnitas for tacos, guacamole, pico de gallo, and churros. Most of the foods were made by the youth, all were important to their Latino culture, and all were an essential part of the day’s festivities in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
For Diana E., the work in the kitchen on that mid-October morning brought back memories of making tamales alongside her aunts and uncles in Mexico.
“I know what the meaning is behind the food and I get to have memories of cooking with my family,” she said. “It makes my heart feel good. It gives me more motivation and pride in my culture.”
These types of cultural connections aren’t always easy to create inside a correctional facility. But they are essential to helping the youth learn about their identities and appreciate others’ cultures, said Griselda Solano Salinas, Hispanic services coordinator with the Oregon Youth Authority’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR).
“For the younger generations who are struggling with their identity, it’s especially important to learn about the contributions of Latinos in the United States — that we all have something to contribute, regardless of our ethnicity or skin color,” Solano Salinas said.
Besides the feast, Oak Creek’s celebration included several youth reading historical facts, Ballet Folklorico Tlanese from Salem performing lively traditional dances, and Comparsa Orgullo Morelense sharing the colorful masks and attire of Chinelos, traditional dancers from Mexico that blend indigenous and Catholic traditions.
MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility also held a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in early October. Called “La Kermes,” the event was like a mini outdoor carnival and featured traditional foods; homemade piñatas; a car show; and performances by the youth Aztec Group, Ballet Folklorico Tlanese, and a Chicano rapper.
Both events were not just for Latino youth — they were for youth of any culture to attend and learn about each other. The lessons also apply to staff, Solano Salinas says.
“It’s important to share each other’s culture and history so we can connect with each other,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to come together to celebrate our differences. Sometimes that’s how we realize we actually have more in common.”
At Oak Creek, staff even participated in the performances. Several facility staff members, Oregon Youth Authority leaders, and members of the OIIR team donned the Chinelos masks and attire and surprised the youth by dancing with their faces hidden.
The youth weren’t tricked for long — they quickly realized what was happening and had fun trying to guess who was behind the masks. Ultimately, they even joined the dancing. Many were hesitant at first, but by the end, almost every youth was out in the dancing area, moving and laughing and letting loose for one sunny afternoon. As one community.
That included Diana, who had swapped her kitchen clothes for a traditional Mexican blouse adorned with colorful embroidered flowers.
“I like that they are active here in celebrating and honoring our cultures,” she said. “I feel like we’re all welcomed here.”