A Portland Non-Profit Explores Incarceration and Latinx Lives with ‘American, Us’

After a decade of providing arts programming at youth correctional facilities in Oregon, the Morpheus Youth Project is closing up shop as of next month—but not without one final, poetic achievement.

The nonprofit, which has been providing arts programming at youth correctional facilities in Oregon for a decade now, hosting everything from art workshops to break dance competitions, is collaborating with writer Emilly Prado on a book of poetry, which launches at a book party this weekend.

“I started to get close with the organization while covering what they were doing inside the McLaren Youth Correctional Facility, and over time, our relationship turned into more of a friendship,” says Prado, who just last year released funeral for Skinny, a book of essays that talk about her experience growing up Chicana while living in the predominantly white Bay Area suburbs.

It was around the time of her Funeral for Flaca launch in 2021 that Prado was approached by MYP about co-authoring a book project with emerging poet Andres Mendoza, who started writing poetry at age 17 while he was incarcerated. “It’s something that I never thought would have been possible if it wasn’t for MYP,” says Andres Mendoza, whose poetry eventually caught the eye of Chavez, MYP’s Executive Director. “At some point I had an entire portfolio of poetry. and so, [Chavez] put two and two together.” (Mendoza’s poetry has also been published in pacificREVIEW, The Mirror Maze and the 2016 Words Unlocked Anthology.)

The resulting chapbook is titled American, US. Featuring experimental poetry and prose by Mendoza and Prado, American, US explores the parallel experiences that both authors face as first-generation Chicanxs in the US The stories are complemented by artwork from Oregon artists Marco Acosta, Jesus Torralba, and Manuel Villagran, all of whom were connected to the MYP community in some way.

“What’s unique about this project is it unfolds like a conversation,” says Prado. “We both had some separate pieces that we kind of just put together, but we ended up seeing that we dealt with a lot of similar topics..”

The limited-release book (there are only 175 copies) drops this week, with a celebratory book release party on Saturday, April 16 at Barrio at the Portland Mercado — which also happens to be the seven-year anniversary of Mendoza’s conviction and subsequent six years in juvenile detention. “It’s a dialogue about healing, incarceration, rehabilitation, and mental health,” says Mendoza of American, US. “But it’s also a view into the Latinx community. It’s an opportunity for people to kind of step into our world for a second and see how we view things from our side.”

The free event, which runs from 2 pm to 5 pm, is open to all ages and includes book signings and readings by Prado and Mendoza along with music by Noche Libre, a Latinx DJ collective that Prado co-founded in 2017, where she moonlights under the name DJ Mami Miami.

You can pre-order a copy of American, US here.

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