Celebrating a milestone

Darlene Escalante, 25, reacts to being crowned the winner of the second annual Miss Independence Day Pageant by Jaren Francis, center, organizer of the pageant at Walden House, a halfway facility for women who have served time. In her essay, Escalante said: "Independence means breaking the cycle of three generations of incarceration. It means independence from three generations of drug addiction, it means independence from living a gang life." More photos >>> (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Stepping to the front of the makeshift stage, she rolled up her essay on "What Independence Means to Me" into a tight cylinder in her hands. "I'm not going to read my essay," Darlene Escalante said, her eyes watery, her voice a husky whisper.

An audience of more than 70 women waited at the second annual Miss Independence Day Pageant at Walden House, a residential treatment center for women halfway between prison and the daunting rest of their lives.
FOR THE RECORD:
Walden House: A photo caption with an article in Friday's California section about a Miss Independence Day Pageant at Walden House, a residential treatment center for women leaving prison, identified the woman singing as Rita. Her name is Carri Vizcarra. —



Upon arrival, they're deposited at a side door in handcuffs and jail-issue "muumuus," then whisked into a world of rules, creeds, meetings, counseling and beds that must be made every day.

Now, just three weeks out of the state women's prison in Chowchilla, where she'd been incarcerated on drug charges, Escalante was in a beauty pageant. And this contest, held two nights before the Fourth of July, required some words on independence.

"I'm just going to talk to you from my heart," said Escalante, 25, eyes rimmed in dark liner, lips outlined in dark pencil. "Independence means breaking the cycle of three generations of incarceration. It means independence from three generations of drug addiction. It means independence from living a gang life."

Her voice grew stronger. "My independence means getting myself together and living for my kids." The room erupted in applause. In a treatment facility where tears and anger and angst are the rule of the day, a beauty pageant was an opportunity to let self-esteem flourish.

The walls of the fluorescent-lit meeting room were draped in sparkly velvet and American flags. Three rhinestone crowns sat on a pillow waiting to be placed on the heads of the three winners.

Other than that, there were few hallmarks of a traditional pageant. Not everyone dressed up. Some of the 21 contestants read their essays in baggy chinos or tight capris. Most sported elaborate tattoos. Not one baton was twirled or piano concerto played. There were no swimsuits.

But when it came to the part where the women had to answer a question -- or, in this case, write an essay on independence -- they had every professional beauty contestant in the world beat hands down.

In the emotionally intense community of Walden House -- where the women attend workshops and meetings, refer to their housemates as family and grapple with substance-abuse problems, forsaken children and how to get a job -- the pageant is another avenue for them to express themselves.

Most spend a few months at the old brick building on Hill Street south of downtown L.A. before they are released into the world at large.

"All they've ever been is shut down in their lives, and now they have this chance to verbally emote," said Joe Loya, a senior staffer who works at several of the Walden facilities throughout the state.

Like any beauty pageant, it was also about primping. Just half an hour before it started, the upstairs hallway was full of dark red lips and masses of hair as women hurriedly tugged at borrowed dresses and pulled on strapped heels.

"The chaos," said Carri Vizcarra, grinning calmly in a black dress with handkerchief hem.

"Any words of encouragement? Please!" begged Jessie Gonzalez to Claudine Macias, clinical manager of Walden House.

"Break a leg!" Macias offered.

Gonzalez rolled her eyes.