How one man is creating a 'positive gang' for Latino youth

A mentoring program in rural California gives young Latino males an alternative to violence and futility.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
During a field trip, some of the teenage Latino boys helped by Eddie Valero’s nonprofit play a game called the knot that encourages communication.

Late at night, 19-year-old Pedro Lopez will step outside with his girlfriend, Ruby Núñez, to savor the solitude – the lush citrus fields fanning out in all directions that release intoxicating scents into the cool air.

For Mr. Lopez and many other young men growing up in Cutler-Orosi, two unincorporated towns occupying a two-by-four-square-mile stretch of isolation and poverty in California’s Central Valley, this idyllic-looking rural landscape is often fraught with peril. The signs of what he and his male peers are up against are not hard to find – gang graffiti spray-painted on rural route mailboxes, barnyard fences, and irrigation pumps in verdant orange groves. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pedro Lopez sits with his girlfriend, Ruby Núñez, who helped him get out of a gang with assistance from the Young Men’s Initiative, a mentoring program for Latino boys.

These side-by-side farmworker communities, where trucks brimming with nectarines and peaches heave down country roads, may seem like an unlikely hub for gang activity, a place where drive-by shootings between rival gangs are an unnerving fact of life. Young men like Lopez, who got caught up in a violent Norteño gang chapter for several years, are particularly vulnerable, growing up in tempestuous households with absent fathers and mothers working long hours in the fields.

Even young men who do not succumb to the gang’s allure face significant hurdles, since their families are hard-pressed to make ends meet. They dwell in the “other” California, far from the coast, where a soccer ball can be an unattainable luxury and parks and playgrounds are few. 

Eddie Valero, now 33, grew up in Cutler-Orosi with a lot of disconnected boys who got waylaid in gangs or aged fast in low-wage jobs in packinghouses or the fields. But young Eddie was plucky, a trait inherited from his mother, who left the fields at age 19 to pursue a passion for hair styling that eventually grew into a thriving beauty salon, restaurant, and real estate business. 

At Orosi High School, which he finished in three years, Eddie was the president of the junior class, the student representative to the school board, and a wizard in mock courtroom trials – a whirlwindish tendency for involvement he still possesses. One day, he spied a crumpled piece of paper in the trash can of a guidance counselor’s office that had been intended for another student – the valedictorian. It turned out to be a notice for a prestigious summer program at Yale University. Eddie picked it out of the garbage, sent away for the application, and was accepted into the program, subsidizing the summer through sales of tamales and cookies. 

He would graduate from another Ivy League institution, Cornell University, as a super-nerd who still buttons his shirts to the neck and is rarely without a Kangol cap, even in the sweltering heat. Mr. Valero studied in Rome, Washington, D.C., and at Princeton University in New Jersey, plunging into research for a still-pending PhD about how the design of schools influences the spaces where students hang out, “the hidden pockets for druggies, lovers, and gangsters.”

In Cutler-Orosi, Valero was a rare success story who prompted many adults to ask “Why can’t you be more like Eddie?” “I was seen as the scholarship boy, the student on the platform,” he says. “But I wasn’t bringing anyone with me.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Gang graffiti covers the railing over a canal in Cutler-Orosi, two agricultural towns in California’s Central Valley

Valero wound up returning to the place he calls “a work in progress” after more than 10 years away. He missed home: On clear days, when the haze and smog that typically enshroud the valley disappear, the luminous snowcaps of the Sierra Nevada appear to levitate in the distance. 

Yet the twin communities of Cutler and Orosi (pop. 14,000) are also encyclopedias of need. They are located in Tulare County, America’s dairy juggernaut and one of the poorest counties in California. All students in the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District are considered socially and economically disadvantaged, and three-quarters of them enter kindergarten not speaking English. Most have never seen Sequoia National Park, less than an hour away. 

On Avenue 416, Orosi’s main drag, weather-worn awnings sag over hand-
painted storefront displays in Spanish; across the street, men in sombreros pile groceries into pickup trucks. 

Residents in nearby East Orosi, just past a bridge over a ditch, put up with the indignity of years of paying for bottled water. Their groundwater is contaminated with nitrates from animal waste, fertilizer, and other agricultural chemicals, a not-uncommon scenario in impoverished California Latino towns. Boys kick soccer balls into tattered netting, their dusty ball thumping over rocks and weeds with menacing prickles. 

The contrast between the Ivy League privilege that Valero saw out east – “the sense of Disneyland every day” – and the have-nots in his own community prompted him to run for the school board. It didn’t take him long to notice a disturbing trend at scholarship nights and award ceremonies. “It was always double-
digit females to single-digit males,” he recalls. “I said, ‘you know what? We really need to do something.’ ”

The result was the Young Men’s Initiative, a peer-led nonprofit organization for male high school students who do not have a father or positive male figure in their life. YMI, as it is known, started in a high school classroom, migrated to a pizza parlor, and now has its own home – a once-ramshackle bungalow full of cobwebs and dirt that about 20 YMIers renovated themselves – right across from the high school. The campus is a hangout, a study lounge, a place to talk, a refuge.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Chef Myra de la Cruz (r.) works with Roman Leon (c.) and others in the kitchen of the Young Men’s Initiative cafe, set up to help train young Latino men how to cook and manage a food business.

Lopez, a YMI alumnus, was tight with his father as a child, but his parents were always fighting, and after they split his dad vanished from his life. His mother remarried, to a man who drank too much and resented Lopez, coming home soused late at night and pushing him around. Cousins who were gang members lived in the house, too. His mother was indifferent. When she met Ruby Núñez for the first time she said: “You’re much too pretty for my son.” 

To avoid tensions at home, Lopez, then 16, started hanging out in the street with a lot of older guys who were Norteños. “They taught me how to change oil in a car, how to defend myself,” he says. “Things that my father should have taught me.”

His perspective changed in 2014, when his Norteño mentor was shot dead by the victim of an attempted robbery. After the trauma, Lopez began reassessing his involvement with his homies. When he started pulling back, he received death threats – serious ones. Both Norteños and rival Sureños, as well as other gangs, originated and are still largely run out of the state prison system, where incarcerated members order up robberies, drug sales, shootings of rivals, and other crimes. “It’s a good thing I knew how to jump fences quick,” Lopez says.

Ms. Núñez, whom he met in world history class his junior year, saw a different Lopez. “I liked how she was,” he says. “She wanted me to be bigger and better.”

An English teacher connected Lopez with YMI, which tethered him to solid emotional ground. Núñez’s family and the mother of a YMI member stepped in, too, helping him become financially stable. “It gets you started to be a better man,” Lopez says of the program, taking a break from thinning orange trees in the hot sun, a job he took to pay for college. “Latino guys hate emotions, but together we’re able to talk to each other.” 

YMI brothers, as they call themselves, meet one evening a week to share their highs and lows and common struggles – whether it’s a spat with a girlfriend or suddenly finding out that a sister has a different dad. “We leave aside the cliques to get to know each other wholeheartedly, without labels,” says Juan Robles, who is attending the University of California, Merced this fall with the help of the California DREAM Act.

The hunger for an absent father can have a devastating effect on the trajectory of young men’s lives. With YMI, Valero strives to fill those “spaces of emptiness.”

The group operates on a shoestring, initially funded by profits from the restaurant Valero’s mother owns. (YMI recently received its first grant, from the Central Valley Community Foundation.) In August, the long-anticipated YMI Cafe made its debut, manned by the young men themselves and providing on-site work experience. The cafe, which has BE YOU BE BOLD AND BE AWESOME screen-printed on the windows, has already become a raucous haunt, serving up specialty paninis and sandwiches layered with not-so-subliminal messages – including the Harvard Hot, chicken slathered with jalapeños, and the coleslaw-rich Stanford Supreme, washed down with Leadership Lemonade. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Juan Robles (l.) and his brother, Bryan, stand in a field in Cutler-Orosi, Calif. Juan will attend the University of California, Merced this fall.

For many of the young brothers, trust is a tentative proposition, like training wheels on a bike. Valero knows that it is far too easy to grow up in Cutler-Orosi with little sense of possibility, to lose one’s way in the maze of roads dotted with flecks of hay and routes to futility.

“Dream big,” he enjoins the young men. “Work hard. Give back.”

Mr. Robles, a policy debate champion, grew up with a single mother who works in the fields. On weekends, he picks plums alongside her. “You swallow a few pounds of dirt, feel it on your forehead,” he says. “I see how my mom has struggled.”

When his mother, Silvia Nava, was unable to get time off to take her son to visit the university in Merced, Valero took him. YMI “gave him that little extra push he needed,” Ms. Nava says. 

A man of deep faith and supersonic energy, Valero serves as a Sherpa to the brothers in their less circumscribed world, encouraging them to set bigger goals and develop the confidence to pursue them. He gives them what he craved from his own father, a retired farmworker who was raised in a traditional Mexican household with 10 siblings and a sense of machismo that made him emotionally reticent, removed from “the tears, the fears, the frustrations” of daily life. 

A typical day for Valero – he is not married and lives at home with his parents – might include a school board meeting (he’s the president), writing a financial aid letter, teaching a class at Fresno Pacific University, helping a YMIer polish a résumé, and driving another to a clinic to get his gang tattoos removed. 

In the three years since YMI’s founding, Valero has taken the brothers to Los Angeles; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and San Francisco, where they served meals to the homeless at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district. They have picked up highway trash, delivered recycling bins, distributed Halloween pumpkins, and fed veterans. YMIers also receive stipends to help cater events such as weddings, where they wear collared shirts and bow ties and learn how to shake hands, look someone in the eye, and “be at your utmost,” in Valero’s words. 

While many nonprofits focus on “at risk” young men, Valero prefers to “mix it up,” as he puts it, bringing together young people who are brainiac high achievers, middle-of-the-roaders, teens languishing in school, and those who might succumb to a vocation of violence. He attracts both leaders and leaders-in-waiting, some referred by teachers. “Imagine a valedictorian saying to a brother, ‘I don’t know how to change my tires,’ and the brother asking the valedictorian, ‘how do you study for a math
test?’ ” Valero says. “It’s about peer-to-peer opportunity, instead of looking only at adults as role models.”

Valero draws inspiration from an initiative at the Oakland Unified School District, the Office of African American Male Achievement, in which black male teachers work with young men to strengthen a sense of brotherhood and cultural identity.

Like their African-American counterparts, young Latino men have been clustered at the bottom of nearly every academic indicator, more likely to be suspended, expelled, or truant than whites. The 2012-13 public high school graduation rate for Latino males was 15 percent below that for white males, according to a Schott Foundation report. 

Although Latinos have made big strides in college enrollment, a sizable gender gap persists between Latinas and Latino males, with young women earning 3 out of 5 bachelor’s degrees given out to Hispanics. Much more than females, young men in the Latino community are socialized to provide for their families, particularly in rural areas, where economic realities often trump going to college, notes Victor B. Saenz, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of Project MALE, a university mentoring program for Latino men. 

Pedro Noguera, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and an expert on race and education, considers Valero’s initiative an important model. The combination of mentoring, job training, and exposure to a bigger universe is a sensible approach, Dr. Noguera says. “The role modeling is key, which is why the campus is so important,” he observes. “What Eddie Valero recognizes is that these young men can learn from each other, [be a role] model for each other.” 

Alex Coronado, for instance, was on the cusp of trouble. In seventh grade, he threatened to bring a gun to school (he received mandatory counseling). His mother fled an abusive relationship with Alex’s father, moving the family several times. When Alex was 5, the family was homeless for about four months, living out of their car. “It was kind of uncomfortable,” Alex says. “But what else can you do?” 

He flirted with joining a gang, mostly out of loneliness. “Who else am I gonna hang around with?” he recalls thinking, swiveling nervously in a chair. “It was, ‘nobody likes me.’ ”

He was the target of frequent bullying – Alex is short, dark-skinned, and had trouble pronouncing his “s’s.” His YMI brother Jose Ledezma, who is two years older, “gives me lots of tips, like how do I do my homework? And how can I get along with my dad?” Alex says, referring to his stepfather. If there is a hint of bullying, Mr. Ledezma and other YMIers step in, fully prepared to report the incident to school authorities.

 “They’ve taught me how to recover from all the nonsense that was going on with me,” says Alex, who is now getting better grades and is determined to be the first in his family to go to college. 

•     •     •

Without an infusion of resilience, the precipice for young men in Cutler-Orosi is never far. Gilbert Lewis Zayas Jr. knows the dangers all too well. 

His eldest son, Gilbert Matthew Jr., got swept up in the Norteños and was shot and killed beside a taco truck a block from his grandparents’ house. He was 18. Gilbert’s younger brother, then 14, witnessed the shooting and became “a boiling pot, basically,” his father says. He is incarcerated at California State Prison, Corcoran for killing a Sureño. Mr. Zayas dates these tragedies to his divorce. “If you allow the streets to raise your children, it’s going to eat them up and spit them out,” he says. 

Zayas was stunned the first time he visited the cemetery in Orosi after his son’s death. “A cemetery is for people that are passing because of old age, disease,” he says. “The lives that are flooding this cemetery are youth. I saw faces of young men who were playing baseball and football. They are all out there buried. Young kids.”

Poor rural areas like Cutler-Orosi are especially fertile ground for criminal activity, with remote outlying areas for methamphetamine labs, pot farms, and other illegal enterprises. In this environment, gangs become de facto employment agencies, notes Jorja Leap, a professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and an expert on gangs. The groups become particularly enticing when the only other prevailing option is grueling, low-wage seasonal labor.

Poverty and absent parents, especially fathers, further push young people toward gang involvement. In a place with few amenities and enrichment programs, gangs don’t have a lot of competition. “These are adolescent men,” Dr. Leap says. “They’re going to gravitate to where the action is.”

The powder-keg atmosphere is exacerbated by gang geography in which both Norteños and rival Sureños have a strong local presence, belying the traditional, imagined line that divides them around nearby Bakersfield. Cutler-Orosi has 225 northern and 125 southern gang members currently identified by the Tulare County Sheriff Department’s gang violence suppression unit. The community of Ivanhoe, less than 10 miles away, is a southern stronghold.

After a three-year spate of gang-related homicides, the sheriff’s office in 2010 issued a civil gang injunction for Cutler-Orosi, a court-ordered restraining order preventing gang members from congregating and other restrictions. Though the number of homicides has decreased since then, violence persists – with five gang-related shootings and one gang-related homicide in Cutler-Orosi so far this year. 

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux estimates that five generations of gangs have grown up in Cutler-Orosi, some members as young as 8. “Now we have generations raising generations of gang members,” says Mr. Boudreaux, who has seen infants swaddled in Norteño red bandannas. “They don’t know any different than gang life.”

Erin Brooks, senior deputy public defender for Tulare County, notes that most children and teenagers don’t join gangs – they’re absorbed into them. It takes an exceptional person to get out of that environment. 

“Law enforcement always thinks it’s a choice,” says William Pernik, a Salinas, Calif., attorney and Tulare County’s former deputy public defender. “In my experience, these are lost souls – kids who don’t have a support system and who don’t see a different future for themselves.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Agricultural workers – men and women – pick oranges in a grove in Cutler- Orosi, Calif.

YMI offers them a support network even though it is not a gang intervention organization. As school board president, Valero worked with YMI and the local school district as well as two other groups to stage a “Stop the Violence” community rally earlier this year. He and others believe supporting young men within the school district – along with the independent YMI – is vital.

“If these at-risk boys do not find a purpose outside of school, they resort back to what they know,” says Yolanda Valdez, the superintendent for the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District. “In YMI, Eddie has created a positive gang that promotes goodness and achievement.”

Valero has accomplished much in three years to move many young men forward. The plans for the future include an on-site therapist – an idea the members came up with themselves. But YMI is not a magic bullet – and a young man has to be ready for it.

Robert Ramirez had trepidations about joining YMI. “At first I was nervous,” he says. “I was used to gangbangers. All my little friends were northerners.” 

Mr. Ramirez is an angelic-looking 18-year-old with long eyelashes who will casually roll up his pant leg to reveal a scar from a gunshot wound, one of two.

So far, he has attended YMI meetings only sporadically. He spent two years in juvenile detention after getting stopped by police with a stolen car and gun. His father was in prison when Ramirez was born. He started smoking weed at 9.

One of his childhood memories is walking home from school and seeing his brother and sister get jumped by fellow students – gang members. His brother, a high-schooler, wound up in the hospital. Some time later his brother was stabbed in the head six times by a rival, Ramirez says. His brother left town to try to escape the gang culture but one day he brought a gun to Orosi. “When he first got it, he told everybody he would die with that gun – and he did,” Ramirez recalls, his eyes misting over. 

Ramirez, who adored his big brother, ceased caring about life and started spiraling out of control, doing meth, stealing cars. “I kind of wanted to die,” he says. “I saw him as my dad.”

While he was at juvenile hall, he heard about YMI through a friend and made contact with Valero through Facebook. Valero knows it requires tremendous strength for a teen like Ramirez to become, as he puts it, a “doer.” 

“Everyone [here] has someone – a family member – who is a gangster,” says Ramirez. 

“It’s a small town,” he notes. “Everybody knows each other.”

Yet the teen is now moving in the right direction and hopes to go to art school. Little by little, his fellow YMIers are beginning to fill the void. “They have become like brothers,” he says. “They talk to me. They tell me that the best thing to do is move forward and don’t go back to my same old ways.” 

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