Gato and Alex--No Safe Place
In 1996 and 1997, stories in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times sounded the alarm about the rise of Salvadoran gangs. In coverage reminiscent of the anti-zoot suit hysteria of the forties, both papers published graphic photos of tattooed Salvadorans accompanied by vivid stories of their incorrigible violence. Politicians led by Governor Pete Wilson and Mayor Richard Riordan called for $18 million in state support for the war against gangs. State laws were passed making it a crime to "associate" with gangs, as defined by tattoos, hand signs, the word of paid informants or undercover police. The LAPD antigang units, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), operated with secret budgets, no civilian oversight and broad public support. As revelations in the Rampart Division scandal would show, they often planted evidence, framed people, gave beatings and even shot suspected gang members without cause. More routinely, they "worked up felonies" by issuing tickets for jaywalking, loitering, riding a bicycle through a stop sign and other petty citations that were punishable by fines the homies couldn't afford. From there it was a simple process of arresting them for outstanding citations and warrants, and sending them to jail.
The targets of this dirty war were the inner-city youths born in the wake of the civil rights movement, deindustrialization and the US-bankrolled repression in Central America. They got little sympathy from white liberals. Their nihilistic anger was vocalized only by rap musicians. Their violence was internalized against one another. Only a few farsighted people like Father Gregory Boyle and Luis Rodriguez, both from East LA, envisioned the need to transform this self-destructive energy, but they were isolated.
The lives of Gato and Alex were about to change. There came a new consciousness that the homies themselves had to stop the madness. Too much self-hate and self-destruction began to generate a desire for inner and outer peace. A small group in El Salvador formed a new organization called Homies Unidos, similar in purpose to gang cease-fire efforts in the early nineties by the Crips and Bloods. Working out of an open garage in Gato's barrio of Modelo, Homies Unidos promoted an attitude of calmado (calming) on the street, fostered dialogues between 18th Street and MS and started subsistence businesses making organizational buttons, T-shirts and glassware. Most were Salvadorans deported from LA. They spoke a weird LA brand of Spanglish and had LA tattoos and tough-guy reps from the mythology of the LA streets. In reality, they were trapped between worlds--a living provocation for entrenched gangs and easy targets for revived right-wing death squads.
The center of gravity in Homies Unidos was Magdaleno Rose-Ávila, a massive Mexican-American with a big heart enlarged in the farmworker and Chicano movements in the United States. Magdaleno was living in San Salvador with his wife, Carolina, an international children's advocate, when he started encountering these lost homeboys from LA. Using his community organizing skills and fundraising contacts, Magdaleno made his living room the birthplace of Homies Unidos. "The key to organizing," he said, was that "we listened to them, to their pain. We offered 'comprehension.' It was dangerous for them, because once they became involved in Homies, as opposed to their old gangs, they became open targets with no one to turn to for safety. But the alternative was more dying."
Gato's mother, who returned to El Salvador in 1993, brought him around to the Homies' little garage, where Magdaleno ran nonviolence workshops, which Gato attended. "It was like therapy sessions for torture victims, like I did for Amnesty International," Magdaleno recalled. "The ability to talk was healing, freeing them from their monsters. Also to talk about your dead homeboy is to honor him, so it was like a ceremony."
I first heard of these homies through an article in The Nation by Luis Rodriguez [see "Throwaway Kids," November 21, 1994], whom I looked up in Chicago at the 1996 Democratic convention. By then, achieving peace on the streets of America seemed as urgent an issue as stopping the Vietnam War was in the sixties. If our government was promoting peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, I wondered if it was possible in South Central and East LA. In 1997 I organized a delegation composed of former LA gang members, church workers and community organizers that traveled to El Salvador to explore ways to end the globalized cycle of gang violence. There I first met Gato and heard his life story. He told it calmly, in Spanglish, as he leaned against a wall overlooking a creek that neighborhood women filled with plastic garbage bags. He spoke first of the suffocating cycle of violence that passed as life. "In El Salvador," he said, "the people were terrorized by war, then there was peace, now there is 18th Street and MS killing each other. You never know when you're going to be dead."
One day Gato's comment almost came true. While riding a bus to our meeting place, he was stabbed by a rival MS member. He seemed strangely composed when he showed up in bandages. "I told the guy, 'Man, I don't bang no more. You don't know why you're into that.' And then he told me, 'Fuck you, puta,' and claimed his MS 'hood." I couldn't understand Gato's new willingness to accept insult and stabbing. "It's hard to forgive somebody when they do bad to you" was all he said when I asked him.
But his defiant spirit had not disappeared. Within the next year, Gato moved with his girlfriend, a younger homegirl known as Spanky, and their new baby, into his old house in Modelo. By now, however, Modelo was claimed as MS territory. Not only was Gato still covered with 18th Street tattoos but, even worse, Spanky was an MS homegirl. This was a homie version of Romeo and Juliet, or like an interracial couple moving into a segregationist neighborhood in the early sixties. But Gato wasn't going anywhere. He was home, assuming his responsibility as a father. "A lot of the MS homeboys don't like me because I'm with my lady," he reflected, "but I don't think anyone should choose for me the woman I'm going to be with for the rest of my life. It would be the same thing for me if I saw a homegirl from 18th Street with a guy from MS."