San Quentin’s Asian community organized a festive and all-inclusive ceremony to honor “Super Cycle 5”—the latest graduating class of ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Self).
ROOTS Chairman Kevin Neang served as emcee and made sure the June 9 event reflected great reverence for history and tradition, while also keeping a positive perspective on the future.
“I guess we’re really going to be Asian today,” joked Neang after he was thrown a bottle of Sriracha sauce instead of a microphone. “We usually serve nachos and burritos at these things. It got me thinking—how can we truly celebrate our culture?”
To solve this paradox, ROOTS enlisted Danny Ho and Hieu Nguyen, the event’s “Iron Chefs,” to serve up a luncheon of spring rolls, rice cakes, shrimp chips and other Asian treats—even the obligatory fortune cookie.
Equally important to the day’s theme: each person received a handcrafted origami panda as they walked in the door.
“The panda represents a true freedom fighter,” Neang told everyone later. “Just look at the panda: ‘I’m Black, White, Asian—everyone loves me.’
“That’s why racism is stupid. Ask everyone, “Where’s your inner Panda?”
ROOTS invites prisoners of any ethnicity to participate and focus on their own cultural identity. The diverse crowd of members and guests reflected this ideology.
Outside facilitator Tracy Nguyen led the celebrants in a Unity Clap.
“We start every class with this—first a slow beat, like a heartbeat,” she explained. “This is how the ’60s farmworkers out in the fields came together against language barriers—leaders like Dolores Huerta, Caesar Chavez.
“On the yard—separated by skin, by color, by language, the Unity Clap is for us to honor what we learned from our ancestors.”
Longtime ROOTS member Phoeun You spoke: “Let’s call in our ancestors, parents, the loved ones that have passed on,” he said. “Let’s bring them here—in our hearts, in our sacred space. Feel our ancestors being present right now.”
Neang introduced “the first Asian professor I ever met in my life,” Roger Chung, who teaches Ethnic and Asian studies at Laney College.
“When we circled up to tell our stories, we found ways to restore and heal,” Chung said. “We found ways to heal across racial and ethnic lines—heal across gender and sexual preferences.”
Neang introduced ROOTS founder Eddie Zheng as “an individual who impacted me before I ever met him.” Zheng spent 21 years behind bars—including SQ, before regaining his freedom and organizing the Asian Prisoners Support Community (APSC).
APSC advocates against human rights violations and unjust incarceration and deportation policies.
“Take a deep breath everyone. That breath sustains our lives,” Zheng said. “Walking into this building and passing the sweat lodge, I can’t help but be reminded that we’re all on Native American land right now.
“Through ROOTS, we decolonize our mind—decolonize the violence. We must understand our history.”
Zheng accepted the “Asian Heroes of the Year” award on behalf of APSC, and he described how they and ROOTS all came into existence.
“We wanted the institution to understand the value of having our culture and history acknowledged,” he said. “With the will of the people who are inside the prison industrial complex—we made that happen.”
Nghiep Ke Lam—“Mr. San Quentin,” who paroled from SQ in 2015, spoke about the power and impact of ROOTS.
“This is one opportunity to actually grow,” he said. “There are many opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“One day y’all ain’t gonna be wearing blue no more. Don’t just focus on getting out—focus on staying out.”
Self-described “Blackinese” Joe Hancock wanted to pay tribute to Kasi Chaknavartula, a devoted outside facilitator unable to attend that day.
“She made our LGBT segment possible,” said Hancock. “I want to thank her for teaching us how to smash patriarchy.”
Jimmy Vue successfully transitioned from SQ’s level 2 to finishing his term at the level 1 SQ Firehouse. He received special permission to return for a couple of hours and celebrate with his peers.
“At my recent psych evaluation, they asked me, ‘You’re not a lifer—why do you want to go through the ROOTS Reentry? Why not just go back to your family?’” Vue said.
“But I told them, ‘I want to prove to people that this program works. I want to recontribute to the program that helped me.’”
Neang introduced a person who he said “really makes me smile, Auntie Jun,”—Jun Yamamoto, known throughout the SQ community for her Friday evening origami classes. “Because of her, I can call myself a real O.G.—origami gangsta.”
“This cycle was really about healing,” said Jun as she teared up emotionally. “You all promote this on so many levels. Your commitment speaks to the healing power of art.”
She acknowledged ROOTS’ and her incarcerated students’ contributions toward folding hundreds of origami cranes that protesters took on a recent pilgrimage against ICE facilities in Crystal City and Dilly, Texas.
“These projects are meaningful because it reconnects us to our community,” she said.
Neang introduced graduate Francisco Ortiz as the “Chinito Amigo.”
“When I first got sentenced to life, my wife said, ‘Whatever happens inside, don’t lose yourself—be who you are,’” said Ortiz. “Because of this group, I found myself again.
“Auntie Jun showed me my life is like a piece of paper—I can fold or reshape my life and make anything I want.”
Graduate Thanh Tran gave personal testimony and performed an original song about his own struggles as a youth offender and a Cambodian immigrant. His chorus of “We just need a fighting chance,” captured his sentiments on both fronts.
Louis Sale played ukulele and sang “Tamari’i Hokulea,” a native Tahitian verse sung to the youth as the first ship left the island for Hawaii.
ROOTS members performed the Haka—a Samoan tribal dance. Danny Pita quickly coached the crowd to participate with the traditional sound effects: “mili, mili, mili” (rubbing of hands); “pati-ia, pati-ia” (one clap); “lua pati-ia” (two claps).
The entire audience roared for “lua patia mai le o”—where everyone claps twice in unison before yelling, “Oh!”
The joyous communal sounds set the stage for the event’s keynote speaker—Ny Nourn, a formerly incarcerated woman who not so long ago was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
It took years, but Nourn’s murder conviction was eventually overturned.
“Raise your hands,” Nourn prompted the incarcerated men. “All of you are going home!
“Commit to your freedom. Commit to community work. I owe a great deal to all the people I never met. My story is not unique.
“I’ve been out barely a year and a half. My reward is to be out there fighting for your freedom. You’re looking at someone who was never supposed to be out in the first place.”
Outside facilitator Nate Tan read from a letter he’d written to the group back when he missed ROOTS’ Cambodian Day after his father suffered a stroke, and he stayed by his side at the hospital.
“I realized I had Cambodian role models outside my immediate family, and they were the guys locked up behind bars,” Tan read. “I think as I grew older, I looked for spaces where I didn’t have to explain myself, and it was with you guys inside…
“I guess all this is to say my Cambodian narrative has always been rooted in the poverty, in the violence, and the struggle. But after meeting all you guys inside, my story now includes helping to get you all to freedom.”
Kamsan Suon awed the crowd with a powerful reading of “Dead Memories”—an original poem he wrote about the layers of intergenerational trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge massacre.
“It’s amazing how far people have come,” Chung later said about Suon. “I’ve seen him use laughter, humor, comedy to heal.”
“To see him come up now—a college graduate,” Chung said about Kuon’s 2019 Associate of Arts degree from the Prison University Project. “It shows the growth in him.
“If people could come see us now—the people who believe that incarcerated people can’t learn. It’s an important moment when we’re able to heal those broken connections to education.”
Facilitator Hien Nguyen interned for APSC before earning a fulltime position within the organization. “When you organize and create these kinds of spaces, it can be radical,” she told SQNews. “Celebrating growth—it’s a radical thing.
“It gives people a sense of hope and possibility in the midst of adversity, pain and suffering.”
Neang is slated for release in December, after serving almost nine years.
“I never knew that there are so many people out there who care about me and my family,” he said. “Y’all saved my life. No one is free until we’re all free.”