Hope Rises at Homeboy Bakeries in L.A.

The venture sells bread, but its real business is jobs for gang members - including street rivals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Under ordinary circumstances, Kenny Berrios or Roman Gonzales could easily have killed each other by now.

Instead, these tattooed twenty-somethings, members of rival Los Angeles gangs, spend their days side by side in matching hair nets and a light dusting of flour, baking bread at Homeboy Bakeries.

The bakery is one part of a community venture called Jobs for a Future, which operates on the rationale that giving "gangbangers" jobs can give them an escape from gang life.

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Here in Los Angeles, where police have targeted gangs with an arsenal of high-tech weaponry and sophisticated court injunctions, Jobs for a Future represents an alternate, grass-roots approach to gang violence that is being tried in cities across the country. Critics say it's hard to measure the success of this approach, but those involved say the strategy offers an effective and constructive answer for the communities and the young men involved.

"Our purpose is to provide and create jobs to give these young men the experience they might not be given elsewhere," says Juan Carlos Marquez, who runs the merchandising division of Homeboy Industries. "It's not a bulk item I sell, it's the solution to a problem."

This solution was born of frustration. In 1988, the Rev. Gregory Boyle was working in East L.A.'s Dolores Mission, a largely Mexican neighborhood where simple murals of the Virgin Mary share wall space with wild scrawls of gang graffiti.

Located in the largest grouping of housing projects west of the Mississippi, the parish struggled to cope with crime, poverty, and the 60 gangs that rule the area like feudal lords.

"One day, the women in the parish - there aren't a lot of men here - came to me with this idea," the Jesuit remembers. " 'What if these kids had gainful employment, and not drug selling as a job option?' So we went to factories in area and asked them to call us first for entry-level jobs."

Jobs for a Future was born and now places 200 positions a year. In 1992, Fr. Boyle started Homeboy Industries, which does T-shirt and silkscreen merchandising, as well as the bakery, its biggest division.

Proceeds from the venture fund a day-care center, a homeless shelter, an alternative school for gang youth, and a tattoo-removal service, so former gang members can erase the last vestige of their violent pasts. "All these programs came from below - people looking for solutions to their own problems," says Boyle, director of Jobs for a Future.

These days, Mr. Berrios, Mr. Gonzalez, and a few others - all rival gang members - earn $7 an hour kneading and shaping 600 French, sourdough, and Italian loaves in a warren of rooms rich with the smell of yeast and flour.

They sell the loaves wholesale to a commercial baker.

Tensions over their rival gang affiliations don't interfere with work, they say. "We leave that stuff outside," insists Gonzales, and his easy rapport with Berrios is evidence of that.

That cooperation is significant, Boyle says. "These are kids who used to be shooting at each other. It has a ripple effect out in the community, especially among their homies," he says.

But some gang experts are skeptical about how far that ripple carries and how well these programs work.

"The concept of putting people to work is always a good idea - but does it really do that?" asks Kim Ogg, director of the mayor's antigang office in Houston, where similar programs exist. "It's hard to measure to see if it actually works."

There are also built-in barriers to success, she says, arguing that gang members are usually involved in very-high-profit activities like drug sales or car theft and often won't or can't make the shift to ordinary jobs and salaries.

"They're often unselfdisciplined, have criminal records, an incomplete education, no vocation or trade," she says. "Their job is crime."

But Boyle, a quiet, bearded man, argues that many want more. "I've been doing this a long time," he says, "and I don't know a kid out here who doesn't want a job. Even the kids making money hand over fist would never say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' ... They know honest work is signifying."

But he acknowledges the challenges. "Sometimes they want jobs, but they don't want to work," he says. "But they discover what work is, the value of it, and how to work with supervisors."

Homeboy workers echo that assertion. "It's taught us responsibility," says Berrios, currently on parole after serving time for murder. With a gallery of intricate tattoos and several earrings, Berrios carries himself with the assurance of a much older man. "Father Boyle works with us, he doesn't just give us a job," he continues. "If we come in late, he talks to us, docks our pay, and we realize we have to do better. Other jobs - boom! - we'd be gone."

Some, such as Mr. Marquez, believe they wouldn't have had a chance to work at all if it weren't for the program. "It's hard for gang members to find jobs with their bald heads and tattoos," he says. "Employers discriminate on the basis of looks."

Marquez left the gangs behind to work in Boyle's office, a bustling place decorated with Mexican art and homemade photo collages. "I've done drugs, I've done time," he says. "Now, not only do I live, I live by example - I stayed in the neighborhood when I could have left and I work every day."

While Boyle acknowledges criticism that it's hard to evaluate the impact of Jobs for a Future, stories like Marquez's are how he measures success. "At no point do I scratch my head and say, 'I wonder if this works?' How can this be a failure, putting kids to work?" he asks.

Jobs, he feels, are a better tool for curbing gang activity than L.A.'s increasingly strict injunctions that forbid gang members from gathering.

"People can get more Draconian," he says, "but it will never work because that's not what it's about. I don't mean to excuse bad behavior, but the truth is these kids aren't hopeful."

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