PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Floyd’s Coffee Shop downtown is receiving a brand new mural with Mesoamerican themes done by Portland’s youth of color thanks to a nonprofit called Morpheus Youth Project.
“The mission for Morpheus Youth Project is that we build community for young people through the arts and through culturally responsive workshops and programming. We work with a lot of youth that are incarcerated at places like Oregon Youth Authority, Marion Youth Correctional Facility, Multnomah County Juvenile,” Morpheus Youth Project’s Executive Director, Carlos Chavez, told KOIN 6 News.
In addition to mentoring and mural projects, the group also hosts breakdance competitions, hip-hop jams and teaches multimedia journalism, like radio and video production. They’ve also held cultural lessons for youth about Chicano and African-American history.
Chavez said the mural was commissioned by the owner at Floyd’s after an Aztec dance circle performed at the coffee shop. That dance circle is called Yankuik Ohtli and one of its members is Morpheus Youth Project’s Executive Assistant, Ezequiel Vasquez. The coffee shop owners contacted Vasquez about doing the mural, Chavez said.
Chavez said the artwork is done in a Mesoamerican style. He commissioned Saamir Lopez, a former participant of MYP, to create the design.
“He’s a talented artist. And I was able to commission him to do that. So I paid him some money to create the design,” Chavez said.
From that blueprint, Chavez put up the outline, and many other youth members of the group are helping to fill it in with supervision, using spray paint. The painting was begun on Monday but Chavez said he’s not sure when it will be totally done as he said they need to get more paint to finish it.
Ezequiel Vasquez, 25, told KOIN 6 News he had been incarcerated at MacLaren Youth Correctional in Woodburn when he began being involved with MYP. He said with the help of the program and Hope Partnership, he was able to get out of being involved in gang and criminal activity by the time he got out, having served nine years for a serious offense.
“Carlos is one of those mentors and guys who really gave me opportunity when I was released to get employment and give back and mentor youth as well,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said being someone who identifies as Indigenous and being able to work on an Indigenous Mexica piece of artwork is a meaningful opportunity to participate in, the kind he didn’t see a lot of growing up.
“To have something that’s part of our identity, you know I think it’s a positive empowerment for all youth of color, all youth in general, but especially for us youth who are underserved.”
MYP caters to a lot of marginalized communities, in particular focusing on outer East Portland and Gresham. Though they’ve also done some work in Washington County and different parts of Portland, Chavez said.
Vasquez said with so much attention being put on things like systemic issues and gun violence in Portland right now, he thinks its important that programs like MYP continue to get funding.
“We’re not from downtown, but we’re from the Eastside,” he said. “It’s a really violent place right now, you know. So it’s like, if we can get some youth early on and show them they don’t have to keep doing those things and show them some of their ancestral roots, that’s a really powerful thing for their identity and purpose, man.”
The name of the Aztec dance circle, Yankuik Ohtli, translates to “new road,” Vasquez said. The phrase is in Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztecan group of languages spoken by more than a million people in Mexico, Vasquez said. The dance circle is a separate entity from MYP but is a group specifically inclusive to at-risk youth, women survivors of domestic violence, and other people recovering from some sort of trauma, Vasquez said.
MYP was the recipient of a recent Metro Community Placemaking grant for their work mentoring at-risk, incarcerated youth and using different art mediums as a method of positive intervention to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.