Los Angeles Gangs's Rumbles of Reform

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

His eyes are everywhere but on the stranger he's talking to. He talks quietly, answers in few words or none -- until under his breath he says, as if it were something to be ready for, an event: "Here comes Jay."

Jay Jimenez, this young gang member explains, is respected. At 21, Jay wears six bullet wounds and a tapestry of tattoos commemorating Jesus, la vida locam (the crazy life), and the Cypress Park Boys -- his neighborhood gang.

He's no Mohandas Gandhi. But where Jay goes, other gang members are likely to follow. And he's tired of shooting and getting shot at. He's talking peace these days -- and high school equivalency exams and jobs.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Society -- that is, the Los Angeles county government -- may have finally connected with Jay Jimenez.

The point is to stop the gangs' forays that riddle the barrio with gunfire out of a twisted, petty pride.

How much gang violence has increased in the last few years is controversial. The Los Angeles Police Department recorded 192 gang-related murders last year in the city alone, up from 115 the year before. The whole county logged 351. So far this year the county shows a 46 percent increase over the same period last year.

Some call this growth rate exaggerated, suspecting shifts in how murders are classified as gang-related. But gang violence is clearly growing more violent, more lethal, more impersonal.

The air on a quiet evening in El Sereno, a hilly neighborhood in Los Angeles, is tainted with memories of recent violence. An unmarked police car cruises at a walking pace by a white house with a porch. Seven or eight red embers glow there in the dark. One can just make out the faint outlines of white T-shirts in the background.

The people in the car and those on the porch watch each other. Warm night, chilly silence. A few nights before, another car drove by and someone in the back seat shot two girls sitting on this porch. These El Sereno gang members, or "homeboys," gathered in the shadow watch everything very closely.

The officer at the wheel cruising through El Sereno can name names in better light, and he has pretty good idea of who the vatos locosm are -- the "crazy guys" -- who shoot at rival gang members, into their houses, into their cars. Roughtly half the time they kill a random bystander. This cop will bust them any chance he gets.

The homeboys on the porch watch the patrol car and see in the policeman just another member of a different gang, one who singles them out, harasses them, shines his searchlight at them as they talk, and backs up his colleagues right or wrong -- "just like we do." Sometimes they throw rocks and bottles at this passing intruder in their neighborhood.

The chasm between the porch and the cruiser runs deep enough that men 20 years beyond their own gang days, and working to stop the violence themselves, still call the police "just another gang."

At the same time, there has for years been a constellation of agencies, groups, funds, adn jurisdictions that have scoffed at and ignored one another, despite a common interest in stopping the violence. Now some first, probing lines are being tosses to pull these different groups together. The most embattled gap lies between the police, who are concerned with beating down violent crime, and the community groups trying to ease the problems that lead to it.

Gang violence centers in the barrio. Here, where doors and windows are left open in the evening to cool the house and the kids gather outside, gang pride is the sour counterpart of strong neighborhood feeling. The vitality here shows, even if the overcrowding doesn't. It shows in the yards full of roses, geraniums, yucca, palms, and in small, well-cut lawns. Chicken-scratch poverty with badly flaking house paint mixes with fresh and brightly colored little Mediterraneanstyle haciendas.

Chicano communities are not only some of the most tightly knit and proud in this country, they are also some of the most well-insulated and cut-off from mainstream America, according to Joan W. Moore, a sociologist considered an expert on Chicano gangs.

To a young Chicano cholom -- as gang members are called -- the varrio,m his immediate neighborhood in the larger barrio, is his country, and the gang is the varriom (the word means both gang and neighborhood in Chicano Spanish). Gang Members often say they are willing to die for their fellow homeboys, and they frequently do.

The trouble starts with no money and nothing to do. Almost always high school dropouts, and reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level at that, gang members have no place in the community at large. If a job is there, they don't know how to find it, apply for it, or behave when they find it.

"They're bored, they're scared, and they're ignorant," says Dan Guzman, a street counselor for a just-launched county plan to defuse gang rivalries."They're not stupid."

Many of them -- sitting on the hoods of cars and standing by curbs -- are natural leaders, as savvy and smart as leaders in any organization, according to those who know them well. But they have nowhere to lead.

La vida locam beckons.

With young gang members as proud and defiant as these, police efforts to suppress violence by shining searchlights on young men gathered outside their hot and crowded homes and arresting known troublemakers -- for anything as trivial as drinking beer on up -- may actually spur violence, Joan Moore says.

The young Chicanos trapped between a crowded house and the police, driven by pride, come to see no future for themselves but prison, she says. And prison was often the future of the macho heroes they admire most.

It is the younger cholos,m explains a group of Cypress Park Boys at a local recreation center, the 15-, 16-, and 17-year- olds, that are the most violent. They have machismo to prove and respect to gain. This is where the older members, 18 to early 20s, can make a powerful difference.Instead of snarling taunts at the unproven young without bullet wounds or prison records, these CP Boys say, the veteranosm can be working and going to school.

This handful of gang members have a new enthusiasm. Most men have had enough of violence by their early 20s. The gang, as one of the homeboys here fervently points out, is a lifetime thing.Older members assume a sort of reserve status and usually fade from active gang life.

Jay Jimenez is more ambitious, though, and hopes to be a positive influence on his homeboys. The gang is still going to defend itself, stresses another of the CP Boys, a gang whose placam (logo) is scratched and painted all over this building. It won't just let itself be shot up and battered by the rival Avenues gang. "There's still going to be some retaliation," Jay agrees, though he says there no revenge for the last time he was shot. "But we're going to be a few guys bettering ourselves."

The inspiration here may be Art Pulido. In his late 20s now, and working for Los Angeles Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, Pulido is a thick-chested veteranom of the CP Boys who has been working steadily in his own varrio and others to pull guys like Jay onto a constructive track.

Pulido's inspiration is to bring respect back into barrio, respect for each other's lives and for the family. He pounds the words into the table with his fist as he stresses that those who run programs for Chicanos must come from their own neighborhoods, their own varrios.m

Pulido's inspiration is to bring respect back into barrio, respect for each other's lives and for the family. He pounds the words into the table with his fist as he stresses that those who run programs for Chicanos must come from their own neighborhoods, their own varrios.m

Pulido has brought Jimenez and four or five other CP Boys to the Community Youth Gang Services Project. Although the project has had management troubles, including the recent firing of director John Flores (he was immediately replaced by Tommy Chung, a former director of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program Inc.) , it still pumps more money into the barrio than any other current project. It's a $1.3 million Los Angeles County program to head off explosive gang encounters before they happen. The centerpiece of the plan is teams of streetwise workers that ride the streets, three to a car. They become familiar with gang members and their families, and they counsel, work with community groups, and mediate disputes. "It's a sophisticated kind of social work," Dan Guzman, one of the street workers, says.

Of 50 such street workers, 36 have been screened, hired, and trained already. With much political haggling, the city has bought into the program for two teams as well. About 60 percent of these workers are veteranosm of gangs they will be working with. Whether it will work or not is a clamorous topic.

Its chief selling point is that it worked in Philadelphia, where in the early 1970s it cut gang murders from 32 a year to 2. Its detractors say that it is a plan made for a black community that is being applied to a Chicano community by outsiders.

The police, whose emphasis is on getting gang criminals behind bars, are skeptical. Lt. Chuck Bradley, who heads the street gang detail for the county sheriff's office, is hopeful about the program, but notes that veteranos'm prejudice against police takes a long time to erase. It took five years to build rapport between police and street workers in Philadelphia. "We can't wait that long," he says.

These CP Boys say that the program will work. One immediate result may be summer jobs improving the neighborhood with murals and clean-up operations. "We'll be working with other gangs and everything and improving communication," says Jay, who says he might be interested in becoming a street worker.

But that doesn't mean we work with Avenues, one member recoiled.No, Jay agreed. We can't work with Avenues. We can only keep out of each other's territory.

"There can't ever be any communication," CP Boy Vincent Flores (no relation to the program director) says coolly. "Too many people have been killed, man, on both sides."

And if Jay applies to be a street worker, he will be asked if he can work with police, who he says have intentionally picked him up and made him walk home from the Highland Park police station through Avenues' turf."It was like making me walk the gangplank," he says, still amazed, and he pulls a cap down over his eyes and hunches up his shoulders in imitation of how he made it home. And the police, he claims, once arrested him in his house for a murder committed while he was in Colorado. They kept him in juvenile hall for a month, and informed the victim's gang that Jay had been nabbed for the job. This meant attempts on Jay's life when he was out.

Jay could probably not bring himself to say he would work with police. And Jay's attitude is reflected by veteranosm like Art Pulido as well.

"Because we're working so closely with probation and police, they're calling us a snitch program," Guzman admits. That has to be lived down -- among youths extremely suspicious of police set-ups -- by workers with beepers on their belts and two-way radios in their cars.

Chicano street gangs are a tradition dating back to at least the turn of the century. They have always been fighting gangs, and alcohol and drugs have always been a part of gang life. Their most colorful era was that of the Pachuco dandies in the early '40s who more baggy zoot suits. Older men recall proudly -- and perhaps romantically, Dr. Moore notes -- when gang fights were fair and guns were used rarely and then chiefly to frighten and humiliate. Even 10 years ago veterans recall "rat packing" each other, kicking and beating en masse, but the guns remained in the background. And they were fired much more often than anyone was hit.

Times have changed.

In the past decade or so, observes Dr. Moore, whose book "Homeboys" is considered the definitive study on Los Angeles Chicano gangs, the fair fight has fallen by the wayside. The staple of gang warfare has become the foray by car into rival territory to shoot up targeted people. More have cars and more use guns. The victims -- like the two girls on the El Sereno porch -- are often not the ones targeted.

Somebody, gang members say, just began shooting a few years back, and young machos shot a them in return. The intensity of gang rivalries may have stayed the same; widespread use of guns has made the ensuing violence more lethal.

The decided jump in the gang-related murder figures in the last few years has what may be a suspicious parallel. According to Billy Cardenas, director of Ayudate, a drug and alcohol outpatient clinic in East Los Angeles, the drug PCP started showing up among street gangs about 3 1/2 years ago. Otherwise known as "angel dust," the drug is widely associated with violence.

"It's vicious," Mr. Cardenas asserts. "It's cheap and it's easy to manufacture." A onetime gang member himself, he says that with PCP things happen that would never happen in a gang situation with only marijuana and alcohol.

In the barrio, where the population is seven or eight years younger than the national average, the excesses of youth can often have a stronger hold than other forces. The gang culture is tought to root out because it seems so closely patterned after the gentler values of Chicano culture -- a strong family and community pride. The machismo romance and war-storied folklore of the gangs can become almost a burlesque of Chicano culture.

The power of peer pressure here is obvious on an evening drive through public housing projects known by their gangs as Hazard or Dogtown. The balconies and lawns are full of youths, standing around and staying out of the still-sweltering apartments.

Perhaps 1 in 10, various observers estimate, join a gang, usually at around the age of 14. Dr. Moore figures there may be broughly 3,000 kids active in Los Angeles gangs. State Attorney General George Deukmejian estimates 52,400 youth gang members in California. And of 30 or 40 in a gang, perhaps three or four are vatos locos,m crazy guys bent on violent crime. These are often the ones the others follow.

Meanwhile, as part of a different program, there are two new faces cruising around the Cypress Park Recreation Center. Wearing sunglasses and driving slowly in an unmarked police car -- so reports a watchful CP Boy -- Officers Brent Josephson and Brent Smith are taking the Los Angeles Police Department on a new tack.

"The Brents," as their police colleagues call them, have already lined up a welding job for a hard-core member of the Avenues gang. A Cypress Park veteranom says they've tried to make contact with him, but he has refused so far. Their aim is to focus on two rival gangs, the CP Boys and the Avenues, and to prevent shooting. Their tactic is to get gang members jobs.

They will help young men get over hurdles like criminal records and revoked driver's licenses on one side, and follow up in support of employers on the other.

"People are sick to death of this social worker, crisis- intervention-type program," Josephson remarks. "They're proud people, and they don't want handouts."

But they need role models, he insists. "When these kids have pushed on a wall it has always given way. . . . We will be solid. We explain right from the start: We're firm. We're not going to quit being police officers."

This program and others like it need help from local businesses in supplying jobs. Everyone connected with the programs is hopeful and positive so far, but it may be too early to tell what their impact will be.

Most efforts to quell gang violence no longer aim to break up the gangs. Gangs, after all, are the chief source of identity and pride for many Chicano youths. Many efforts have risen and fallen over the years to divert gang spirit into sports and other activities. Most, if not all, fall to rivalries that escalate in the retribution cycle into violence.

La vida locam again. Family problems play a part; a weak family doesn't present much counterweight to the peer influence of the gang.

Tony Rios, director of the Community Service Organization in Los Angeles and a former gang member, says the Chicano family is still more traditional and less fragmented than other American families. Dr. Moore agrees, but points out an irony. Mexicans are traditionally marked by high family morale and respect for elders and neighbors. In an American environment, though, even very normal American-type Chicano families can feel inadequate and uneasy because they are not meeting high Mexican standards.

Yet, of four prominent members of the Cypress Park Boys gathered in a restaurant in their neighborhood and pestering the waitress for her phone number , only one is living in a home with a father. Two of the others have never seen their fathers and didn't know where they are. ("Goodbye and forget about your babies," explains one.) Jay Jimenez's father was shot before he was born. ("Right over there behind the El Camino," he points out.) Among them they guess that half of their homeboys have fathers at home.

Part of this disruption comes from lack of jobs for heads of families. It means not only poverty, of course, but also the upset of a traditional family role. And part of it comes from overcrowding. The barrio is quiet, full of mostly single-family houses full of families, according to Dr. Moore. She lives in East Los Angeles part of the year as she does her ongoing work for the Chicano Pinto Research Project. She says her son visited a friend here and found a house where mattresses covered the floor from one wall to the other with no more than a few feet of space in between to call one's own.

School has never reached most gang members and they remain nearly illiterate. In second grade, Jay Jimenez says, the teacher and the kids in the back of the room more or less went their separate ways. "Structured frustration," Lionel Maldonado calls it; he's an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, sociology department. He was counseled away from an academic course as a high school student in East Los Angeles in the 1950s, with the advice: "You people are good with your hands." He and Dr. Moore characterize school in the barrio as boring, rather than challenging.

The church, mostly Roman Catholic, has taken a strong role in social and political matters since the inception of United Neighborhood Organizations, a community interest group made up of 18 Catholic and one Episcopal parish. Most other groups says the church hasn't done much yet. "The church is scared of us, " one of the CP Boys says. The detailed portrait of Jesus tattooed on Jay's wrist is a tribute more to his roots than his practice.

Victory Outreach, a program associated with an evangelical Christian denomination, has impressed some observers with its success in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang fighters.

Joan Moore sees the barrio as worse off both economically and in morale than it was 10 years ago. Now she fears that it is threatened with losing many of its basic social programs as well. This could mean less to do and an even bleaker environment for young gang members.

"You need more than education," one veteranom says. "You need something in the streets."

Morale may be down, Dr. Moore observes, but it is still strong. "There is a lot of vitality in these communities."

Generally, the lives of the CP Boys, like those of other street gangs, are lived within very narrow limits. More than anything else, Dan Guzman says, he takes guys out for a ride in the car around the city. ("Hey man, what's that?" "That's the Hollywood Bowl, man. You want to go see it?")

But every so often their limits are stretched even further, and then their wonder and enthusiasm are hidden behind only the thinnest veneer of jaded street-wise wariness. Over lunch, the CP Boys warm up in talking about one of the few trips they have ever taken outside the barrio, to a special high school equivalency test in Nebraska. Who went first is unclear, but the others followed because a few of their homeboys had gone. They speak of the drive through the Southwest, of staying in a dormitory there with people from all over the country, of how people they didn't even know would ask them how they were.

"Have you ever been to Nebraska?" they ask.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...