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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 Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1997


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

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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.

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.