Tough Love

In East L.A.'s most violent neigborhood mothers unite to save their children

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At 8:15 on a summer evening, 64 mothers, most of them Latinas, walk in a procession into the parking lot of a tiny stucco church in the poorest part of East Los Angeles. The women shield their white candles from the evening wind and sing hymns in Spanish as they walk: 'I have faith that the men will sing. I have faith that this song will be a song of universal love.' In the rectory, five more mothers are completing a meeting with members of the street gang known as The Mob Crew--TMC for short. A few days earlier, the mothers met with Cuatro Flats, a rival gang that claims territory two blocks east. The gangs' enmity is particularly tragic because the members grew up together; they even share a set of brothers.

A week before, this war claimed the lives of two young boys: a 12-year-old Cuatro kid named Johnny and a 13-year-old named Joseph, who was mistaken for his 16-year-old TMC brother. The deaths spurred the mothers to organize these marches and meetings with the hope of hammering out a lasting truce, complete with a kind of multigang United Nations peacekeeping commission to mediate future disputes.

The peace gathering in the rectory is just breaking up as the mothers form a huge circle in the parking lot. The women motion for the gang members to join the circle. At first, the homeboys look unsure in the face of this formidable bloc of feminine energy.

'C'mon now!' One of the mothers, a smallish woman named Pamela McDuffie, bustles out of the rectory, her long magenta fingernails fluttering behind the reluctant young men she herds toward the circle.

'In their hearts they want this peace,' Pam whispers to me, nodding toward the gang members, who have by now each taken a mother's hand. 'You can see it in their faces.'

Pam and the other mothers live in the twin housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, which combine to form the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi. Pico/Aliso is the poorest parish in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. According to statistics compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department, Pico/Aliso is also one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Last year, the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles occurred in the Hollenbeck division--and the highest concentration of gang activity in Hollenbeck was in the mile-square-plus Pico/Aliso housing projects. If life in Los Angeles is harsh and scary, it's scariest in Pico/Aliso.

I began visiting Pico/Aliso in the fall of 1990 to research a book on Latino gang members and the celebrated priest who works with them, Father Greg Boyle. In the beginning, I spent most of my time observing the homeboys who grabbed the headlines. It took a while for me to notice the community's women--and Pam.

7/31/2008 3:16:53 PM

WOW. This article was moving. I will keep it close to my heart for this is the area I grew up in.

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