Larch’s Asian Pacific Islanders connect with culture

Program gives offenders chance to connect, perform, reach out

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Asian Pacific Islander dance


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The Larch Corrections Center is in the Yacolt Burn State Forest, about five miles east of Hockinson. Larch is one of the state’s four minimum-security prisons; it houses 480 offenders, who are within four years of completing their sentences. Those sentences run the gamut, from theft or drug possession to manslaughter or murder.

LARCH CORRECTION CENTER — Bouncing and chanting to the drum’s rhythm, the barefoot, bare-chested dancers in flower-print sarongs are greeted by the audience’s gasps of disbelief, giving way to cheering.

“Dancing in front of a group of people isn’t what a lot of us grew up learning how to do,” says Antonio Ruiz, or “Blue” as the other offenders at Larch Corrections Center call him. That didn’t stop Ruiz and about 30 other offenders from putting on an Asian Pacific Islander, or API, program for friends, family and a handful of other Larch inmates.

The prison’s mess hall served as an auditorium, and an upside-down trash can as a drum, but if you looked past the guards you might think you were inside a community center or church meeting room filled with families waiting to see a cultural event. A large papier-mâché dragon, along with several paintings and other API-inspired artwork helped transport the audience beyond the razor wire and less-than-tropical surroundings.

“Larch Corrections Center, in the middle of a mountain, that actually took a little bit getting used to, to be honest, coming from Hawaii,” said offender Nainoa“Nine” Fontaine, who spearheaded the program and served as the choreographer. “We’re only initially allotted two days a week to practice dancing. We really had to push and push and they were able to give us four days a week for the past three weeks. So in three weeks we were able to get 12 practices in,” Fontaine said of the 25-minute program.

The offenders mastered the chants and dances, and something deeper.

“The meanings behind them, everyone knowing what the dance means, and being able to convey that to people who don’t know what the words mean, but physically transferring the meaning in their expressions, there’s so much pride behind that,” Fontaine said.

Tradition was complemented with moments of humor that included a mock full-body pat-down as an nod to their surroundings. A quick-break dancing display and overall swagger kept the entertainment factor high.

Money for the event, and several other cultural programs, is raised through vending machine profits inside the prison’s visitors’ center and pay phone proceeds. Black History and Hispanic Heritage are two other cultural programs that offenders organize at the facility.

Officials see the experiences as part of the rehabilitation and healing process for the offenders and their families.

“Sometimes it’s the first thing they’ve done positive with their kids because they fell when they were out running the streets,” said Nancy Simmons, community partnership coordinator for Larch Corrections Center.

“This also promotes unity within the prison and helps keep things calmer,” she said. “When they get out this is something they can continue with. This is fun they can have without drinking or taking drugs.”

“I’ve seen the amount of love and commitment that people put in to these API events,” Fontaine said. “And there’s not even so much a cultural barrier of race or religion, but all the way down to the stereotypes of gang members and such. They were enemies, they were maybe even shooting at each other at one point. But when they leave here they left as an API brother and they are able to pass those differences and become something way more important, and just care about each other both inside and out. And I’ve seen it first hand. It’s, it’s amazing to see.”

At the end of the 25-minute performance several offenders reached out to their families with heartfelt messages in a semi-spontaneous display that Fontaine said he had planned, but sort of sprung the opportunity on his fellow inmates.

“It meant so much for me in the sense of being able to say things I’ve wanted to say to my mom, and my sister and my dad. But even more so being able to show them that there is positivity that can come out of a negative situation.”

Others expressed love and appreciation for their parents, wives, girlfriends, children and others who they’ve left behind.

A former teacher of Ruiz, Mary Jo Risse, sat next to his mother. He referred to her as his “second mom” for all the support she’s shown over the years. “I’m not the person I started out as, I’m so much better because of them,” he announced to the crowd as he fought back tears.

Risse responded, “Remember all of you, there’s somebody out there who loves you and cares about you.”