Above: Carlos Chavez teaches breakdancing to MacLaren youth.
Story by T.W., youth at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility
The name Carlos Chavez is one that many people may not recognize. However, it is also one that many young people in Oregon Youth Authority custody know well.
Until recently, Chavez was a contractor with OYA who worked closely with Janus Youth Programs’ HOPE Partnership through his own non-profit organization, Morpheus Youth Project. Chavez had been doing work in MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility for over 11 years. Sadly, his time working in MacLaren came to an end in May, as Chavez made the difficult decision to move out of state and begin a new chapter. However, the impression he is leaving is one that will be long lasting.
One of the things that Chavez has done consistently throughout his long tenure with OYA is art. I sat down with Chavez before he left to pick his brain and hear him reflect on his time in OYA as well as what sent him down this path in the first place.
Chavez says that he has been artistic since he was a child. “Ever since I was a kid, I always had a natural ability when it came to drawing, painting or anything like that,” he says. “Over the years, it just started to come more naturally, and I got better and better at it with practice.”
Chavez has also taken his work and time to middle schools throughout the Portland metro and Gresham areas. I was first introduced to Chavez back in 2011 when he was volunteering at a Gresham middle school. Through his art, Chavez has been able to impact and influence the lives of countless individuals over the years. I can count more than a few myself.
I have witnessed firsthand the kind of impact that Chavez has been able to have on young men like myself through his artwork. Chavez uses his art as a way to not only help young men unlock abilities they may not have known they had, but also as a way to mentor and connect with them.
Chavez says that his goal is to reach the youth who are on the wrong path early on and provide them with resources and opportunities to experience different outlets. “The younger generation holds the key,” he says.
I would say that his skill at influencing others and his ability to relate to others are unmatched by almost anyone I have ever met.
Chavez is well-versed in multiple forms of art, including cooking, painting, drawing, dancing, playing instruments, producing films, and producing music. Because he is a man of so many talents, Chavez has been able to provide young men with varied interests the platform to express themselves creatively in whichever way suits their fancy.
Chavez says that his goal is “to show young men who do not know any better that there are different ways to express yourself, and you can always learn something.” I can say that, for myself, Chavez definitely played a pivotal role in me finding a creative voice. Over the years, Chavez has provided me with opportunities to find and constantly improve my creative voice in a musical setting. He has also continuously challenged me to improve my versatility in a musical sense, recognizing and understanding that music is my passion.
As someone who has been housed in MacLaren for five years, and in OYA for six, I could relate when Chavez began to talk about the changing of the times. We have both seen eras pass by and lived through generations of youth. Chavez began to speak of a time when “everyone had to wear the same color shirt and there were no cameras.” My memory doesn’t go back that far.
I do, however, remember a time before a virus that changed everything. COVID-19 hit hard and fast, and ruined almost everything in its path. Chavez talked about how he “struggled just to stay connected throughout the whole pandemic.” Now, more than two years later, things are starting to get back to normal but will probably never be the same. Partially because of the virus, and partially because Chavez’s time at MacLaren is coming to an end.
As we sit and reflect on the time Chavez has spent at MacLaren, we look around and can see clearly that the impact of his departure will be sorely felt. Chavez has been giving so many young men a safe space for so many years, an environment where they felt comfortable to express themselves, free of judgment, and learn about themselves in the process. He has also given the guys who were already into some of the artforms he is fluent in a chance to refine their talents and receive feedback from someone who has years more experience. He’s also been able to give those guys resources in the community to use their talents to make money.
One of the young men that Chavez has worked with is M.A., a barber and an aspiring artist. He recently started his own clothing brand making shirts that he designed himself. M.A. has worked with Chavez since they were introduced about four years ago. M.A. has done countless projects with Chavez, including murals, portraits, and graffiti art.
What Chavez has done for M.A. is provide him with a multitude of opportunities to hone his craft, learn new techniques, and make money while doing so. He has included M.A. in murals completed inside MacLaren, and even helped him travel to other OYA facilities around the state to do murals inside them.
M.A. says that he has “cherished the opportunity to work with Carlos. … Having someone whose opinion I trust that has been doing art for so many years has helped me improve my work a lot, and I really had fun with it. The best part of it for me was being able to go to other facilities, showcase my work, and connect with new people.”
Another youth that Carlos has worked with is R.C., who has also been around MacLaren for quite some time. He was one of those guys who was not that interested in art when he began participating in Chavez’s groups. He says, however, that “after participating in groups with Carlos for all this time, I’ve learned a lot. It helped me get more in touch with my creative side for sure.”
R.C. continued, “Before I met Carlos, I never really liked drawing or anything like that. The most I ever did was doodling. After learning about and doing so many different forms of art, I got a better understanding that if I take my time, I can do anything I put my mind to.”
These are two very different young men who have been impacted by the work and time that Chavez has dedicated to them both. The common theme is that Chavez has used his talents to help both these young men untap potential within and learn about themselves. I think Chavez’s willingness and ability to impact the lives of others is one of the most impressive and selfless acts I have ever witnessed.
I once read a quote by the late great rapper Nipsey Hussle: “The highest human act possible is to inspire.” Over 11-plus years, Chavez definitely has done that in every way and with every chance that he could. It is truly amazing the number of young men whose lives Chavez has been able to positively impact over that time.
T.W. is a 23-year-old who has been living in MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn for the past five years. He is currently enrolled in his last term at Chemeketa Community College and on track to earn two associate degrees.