In East L.A.'s most violent neigborhood mothers unite to save their children
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.
I first observed her and the Pico/Aliso women in action in January 1991, when they decided to have a showdown with the police department. For years certain officers had been beating up neighborhood kids, and no amount of official complaints or community protests could stop the abuse. The mothers had set up a telephone tree and called one another whenever the police had a kid 'hemmed up'--street parlance for spread-eagled, hands against the wall. The idea was that if there were witnesses, the police would behave appropriately. But the technique seemed only to inflame the officers, who shouted the women back inside with threats of arrest and beat on the boys anyway.
So the mothers invited Captain Bob Medina, then head of the Hollenbeck division, to attend a packed-to-the-rafters meeting at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church. Mother after mother shared anecdotes and demanded respect. Most of the women in the room hadn't finished high school. Many couldn't read. Nonetheless, they looked the officers in the eyes and said, 'If you cannot treat us and our kids as human beings, we'll do whatever it takes to get you fired.'
The police got the point; the violence diminished for a while.
I live in Topanga, which prides itself on its activism, yet I doubted that my neighbors and I could have confronted the police so effectively. A week later, I became curious about the crowd of adult males I saw gathering in the church parking lot each evening around 6. I was told that every night, in rotating shifts, Pam and the other women of the projects make dinner for 125 or so homeless men who sleep in the church. Every weekend, the same women walk the streets of the community in what had come to be called Love Walks, telling the gang members by their words and presence, 'You are all our sons. We love you. We don't want you to kill each other.' I began to think that the real story in East L.A. wasn't the gang members at all. It was the women.
The roots of the women's activism can be traced to Father Boyle, a Jesuit schooled in liberation theology, a philosophy that marries spirituality with social justice. In Latin America, liberation theology had sprung from the comunidades de base, base communities, which were, in essence, Gospel study groups.When Boyle was assigned to Dolores Mission in 1986, he decided to rebuild the base communities started by the previous pastor. Under Boyle's influence, they grew from three anemic gatherings to ten energetic groups of mostly women who met weekly to discuss ways to reshape themselves and their surroundings.
Traditionally, base communities are designed around three simple tenets: 1. Ver: See your reality. Look at what's going on around you. Are the neighborhood kids shooting at each other every night? Are the local cops behaving badly? Is one of the neighbors beating his wife and children? 2. Analizar: Analyze the situation in terms of the Gospel. What does the Gospel say about such problems? Would the Bible suggest hating the gang members or regarding them as kids in need of help? 3. Actuar: Act. What action should be taken? Qué haría Jesús? What would Jesus do in this situation?
The comforting abstractions of organized religion have always made me nervous. But when the women of Pico/Aliso asked themselves 'Qué haría Jesús?' they were not looking for easy answers. It requires a level of commitment and action that goes well beyond what is considered sensible elsewhere. By asking 'Qué haría Jesús?' the women of Pico/Aliso not only taught themselves how to face the community's problems, they also found the confidence to see the solutions that lay within reach of their own hearts and hands.
While the rest of America was talking about the importance of personal responsibility, these women were walking the talk. In Pico/Aliso, drug use and drug dealing are rampant. Small craters pock the walls of stores and apartment buildings, reminders of the time this boy was shot, that one killed. Yet for each of the community's tragic aspects, the women seem to have started a program, usually with Father Boyle's help. There is a community-owned and -operated day-care center (built by a construction crew of local gang members); a women's leadership training program; a mentor program for Pico/Aliso's junior high- and high school-age women; and Comité Pro Paz en el Barrio, the women's organization struggling to keep peace in their barrio.
Certainly there are other such programs elsewhere in the country, but this profusion in a single, impoverished neighborhood struck me as remarkable. In the economic and political climate of the '90s, generosity is at a premium. Yet the mothers of Pico/Aliso seemed to approach life from a different perspective, more as one would in a village, where it's understood that the fates of all the residents are intricately intertwined.
For reasons as much personal as professional, I wanted to know these women.
For a long time, I attended community social events, even bringing my son on many occasions, but I did so as an outsider. Most Pico/Aliso community events are mother-organized potlucks. Yet in the beginning, I never brought any food. It was clear that no one expected me to bring anything, and I didn't offer. Eventually, I asked what I could contribute. Correctly assessing that my skills as a chicken mole chef were somewhat lacking, the women assigned me safe items to bring, like soft drinks and paper plates. Then I was invited to yet another event, and I asked Pam McDuffie what she was bringing. 'I always bring my barbecued chicken,' she said. 'That seems to go over good.'
'Do you think it'd be OK if I brought a salad?' I asked.
'I think that'd be just fine, honey,' she said. 'They'll be honored you made the effort.'
I was going to make a nice, boring green salad. But I decided instead to use those fancy, prewashed baby greens you can get at upscale supermarkets. Plus, I added feta cheese to the usual fare of tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and carrots. I didn't go overboard; there was no raspberry vinegar or goat cheese. But it was a step more Westside than any salad I'd seen during my year in the projects.
That salad was a turning point. For the first hour after I set the bowl on the food table, people just walked by and stared at it. Some even gave it an experimental poke with a fork. Nobody tried it. I know this because I kept going back and checking the salad. It remained inviolate. I felt stupid.
Pam broke the spell. She had arrived late, bringing her chicken as promised. 'Is this your salad?' she asked, heaping herself a plate of the rejected greens. 'Delicious, girl!' she pronounced it. 'I like that salty white stuff, what d'you call it?' After Pam's foray, the other women gathered around the salad for the rest of the afternoon, chatting and taking helpings until the whole bowl was gone.At the next party, Pam asked me to bring the salad. By the third party she said, 'I told them you'd bring your famous salad.' Now all the women say it. 'You're bringing your famous salad, aren't you?' It became my calling card. It made me an equal. Because of the salad, I was no longer an outsider. I was a girlfriend.
Pam McDuffie and I aren't the likeliest of companions. Pam wears high-heeled Spring-O-Lators with everything, including shorts. She's a white woman in her 40s, like me. But I'm an ex-USC cheerleader, ex-New York fashion editor, current DAR daughter. Pam is an ex-welfare mother who was born in, raised in, and never left the housing projects of East L.A. I wear low-key clothes in blacks and neutrals, and little more than lipstick. In addition to her manicure, Pam paints on a full face of makeup, including perfect Clara Bow lips, every day of her life, wears neon tones cut down to there and up to there, and struts all of it with panache.
I feel stressed raising one child on my own. Pam is raising a boy my son's age, as well as a drug-addicted girl whose blood mother died locked up in the Los Angeles County jail, plus her own four grandbabies. These children of her eldest daughter descend on her almost nightly, like little birds for a feeding. Joseph, her godchild, was the 13-year-old just killed in the gang war. It was Pam, with the support of the community women, who raised the money to bury him.
Pam calls everybody 'honey,' including Vice President Al Gore when he came on a fact-finding swing through her barrio. 'C'mon, honey, give me a hug!' purred Pam, sweeping past the horrified Secret Service agents with arms outstretched. Gore obediently gave her the hug. Pam used to be the local VISTA volunteer. Now, as the official gang consultant for the city's Housing Authority, she is finally being paid for her community work. She is the first mother on the street when anything happens: a gang fight, a shooting, a minor riot.
When the mothers accepted me, so did the girls of the community. Since I have no daughters, I warmed quickly to these new relationships. Unlike those of a real mother or a real aunt, however, my responsibilities were temporary. At least that's what I thought until a girl named Grace taught me otherwise.
Grace Campos has the soft, pliable beauty of a Modigliani Madonna. She tests in the highly gifted range and wants to be a doctor. When I met her, she was still attending Bravo, a medical magnet high school in Los Angeles. But she had just become pregnant by a gang member named Stranger. On Halloween eve of 1991 I drove Grace to the hospital, where she gave birth to a daughter, Beatriz. She was not yet 16.
Four months after Beatriz was born, the harsh reality of her situation slammed Grace in the face. She was a teenage dropout with a baby, stuck in a dingy apartment with Stranger, who was spending most of his time on the street. A year later he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Grace talked about killing herself.
In the midst of this, Grace asked me to be her comadre--godmother to her daughter. When she first asked me to help baptize her baby, I was flattered, viewing my role as akin to being the maid of honor at a wedding. I understood that certain things were expected. I would buy the baby her baptism outfit and arrange for the cake at the party. That was about it. Grace and I went to Penney's department store, where she'd determined we would find the best selection of baptism dresses. As Grace leafed through a rack of lacy white garments, she chatted absently about why she had chosen me as godmother. 'I think you'll be a good person for Beatriz to lean her head to when she's growing up,' she said. I suddenly got the picture: Grace was asking me to make a commitment to this baby--for the rest of my life.
My first reaction was to frantically calculate how I could weasel out of my obligation. Then I took a long, hard look at the situation. I can't exactly say that I asked 'Qué haría Jesús?' But here was Grace, trying to make a decent future for her daughter in the face of long odds. And she was offering me the privilege of being a part of that future. How could I possibly turn her down?
So I became godmother to a beautiful little girl and got a ringside seat to watch as Grace turned her life around. (She is now married and working as a kindergarten teacher.) As I did so, my commitment to the community underwent a change. These women, even the young women, take their friendships seriously. And if I wanted to be a girlfriend or an auntie or a comadre, it was clear I'd better get serious, too.In the summer of 1992 Father Boyle left Pico/Aliso for a year's sabbatical. In his absence, a war broke out between two of the project's main gangs. By then I, like Pam, could no longer ignore my responsibilities to these kids. I knew them too well and understood too vividly the high cost of doing nothing.
To plug the hole in the dike created by Boyle's departure, Pam and I formed our own informal mother posse of two. I would drive to the projects every weekend and pick Pam up, then we would walk the neighborhoods, stopping to talk to kids in the various gangs. If nothing bad happened, I would go home around midnight. If there was trouble, we would stay on the street, perhaps going to the hospital or rushing to intervene when we felt our presence could do some good.
One night we saw a group of armed gang members walking toward the territory where we knew another gang was waiting. We got between the two opposing forces, shouting them apart like mother cats hissing at bad kittens. On other nights, we cajoled armed boys off the street and into my car to take them home when we knew the situation was about to turn catastrophic.
When I told my Westside friends the stories of our mishaps, they would lecture me sternly. 'You have a child to raise,' they would begin. I tried to explain that my own child did always, would always, come first. But I am committed to these other kids, too. Surely one shouldn't have to sacrifice the one for the other.
I don't mean to give the wrong impression. The Pico/Aliso women can be gossipy and petty. And members of my home community of Topanga are capable of great courage and generosity when the situation demands it--most notably during the fires, floods, and other natural disasters that descend on our canyon. Perhaps the main difference is that the community makes demands on the women of Pico/Aliso with a staggering frequency, and the demands are so often unbearable. Such was the case of a woman named Marta Sosa.
Marta lives in a third-story apartment with two bedrooms and no phone. Her husband is serving time in prison, convicted of a drug-related theft. Marta had three children. Her eldest, Brenda, has grown up and moved away. Osmin, the youngest, recently turned 15. The middle child, Edgar, was 18 when he was killed in a gang-related shooting two years ago, shot by boys he had known all his life.
Edgar was known on the street as Triste--Sad Boy. He had a face dusted with freckles, a slow, cherubic smile and sad-clown eyes that always appeared to be on the verge of tears. He had just bought a soda and was standing at the corner of Third and Clarence Streets when a flatbed truck drove by. Kids lying down in the back, Cuatro Flats gang members, opened fire. It took the paramedics 20 minutes to arrive. Edgar died at USC Medical Center.
Edgar was killed on May 15, the birthday of Stranger, the father of Grace's baby, my godchild. Pam's sister was inside the market when Edgar was shot. It was she who screamed for someone to call the ambulance. Pam and the other mothers organized the food sales to raise money for the funeral.
In years past, Marta had been blandita--passive--but Edgar's death transformed her. Instead of rejecting Edgar's homeboys, she befriended them. She began walking the streets with the Comité Pro Paz mothers, even walking into Pico Gardens, where the members of Cuatro Flats hang out. The Cuatro boys would watch her, unsure how to react. Their expressions would swing from angry defensiveness to awe and back again as they stared at the luminousface of this woman who came to pray with them.
In a matter of months, Marta went from speaking only Spanish to commanding enough English to give talks in public. The other mothers, recognizing an emerging talent, handed her the microphone when they needed a spokesperson. By the summer of 1994 she had been elected president of the Comité Pro Paz. This past spring, she left the presidency to help other L.A. communities ignite their own mother-based activism.
I got to know Marta only after Edgar's death. I had been following Edgar for my book, and his death stunned me, a peripheral adult in his life. I could hardly imagine how Marta must have felt. A psychologist might have suggested that she was submerging her grief beneath all this intense activity and that there would be hell to pay later. Yet any fool could see that her pain never went away, and her activism was the thing that kept her standing upright.
Last spring I was blindsided by some pain of my own. My father was hospitalized for two weeks and, in my heart, I knew he was dying. During those weeks, the only times I left the hospital were to be with my son or to go to the projects. I needed to be around my Pico/Aliso girlfriends even more than with other friends of much longer standing. One night I slipped away from the hospital to attend a party for a photo/video portrait of Pico/Aliso that had been created by Grace and some other teenagers from the projects. At some point during the video presentation, an image of Edgar's face flickered briefly across the screen. Marta and I clutched each other's hands and cried--her about Edgar, me about my father.
When my father died a week later, Pam and several carloads of women from the projects came to his funeral. I knew Pam was coming, but I was surprised by the presence of the other women, some of whom I barely knew. Very few of my Westside friends had come. When some asked if I wanted them there, I told them no, I was OK. The women of Pico/Aliso never asked. They just came. I had shared their grief; now they came to share mine.
A few months ago, I gathered with the women of Pico/Aliso to bury yet another of their young men. The night of the funeral, Pam sang in the choir. Other mothers circulated through the crowd, collecting money for the family. Marta was among the mourners. When the casket was opened, Marta and I went to say a prayer over the boy, a 19-year-old named Erick Rivera who, unable to imagine a future for himself, had shot himself in the head four nights before.
After we passed the casket, Marta began crying. 'Who's next? Who's next?!' she sobbed. I had been asking myself the same question. Each death here calls up all the others.
Suddenly Marta's sobs became more extreme, as if the wound from Edgar's death had broken open anew. 'I don't want to live anymore,' she sobbed. 'I don't want to live anymore. I don't care about nothing. I just want to see Edgar again. I don't care about nothing.'
Osmin, her younger son, came up and stood beside her, panic-stricken. Immediately, Pam and a few other mothers gathered, whispering instructions to one another. One walked outside with Osmin; the rest of us tried to comfort Marta. As the night wore on, Marta needed more help than we could provide, and by midnight, four of us--Marta, Pam, Maria Teixeira (another woman who works in the neighborhood) and I--were sitting in the emergency room of White Memorial Hospital.
After three hours of bureaucratic tangles, the wait had become excruciating. To ease the tension, Pam told dark and funny stories about her impending separation from her husband. 'Did I tell you about the insurance policy he took out on me? Girl! You're not going to believe this one. I get this call from Sears. This woman calls and says they're having a special and that we can double our life insurance for a tiny little fee more per month. And I tell her we don't have any life insurance. And she tells me that we do, that my husband's taken out a policy on me. That man planning to kill me! I tell you after that, girl, I'm sleeping with one eye open like this!' And she demonstrates. 'I tell every one'a my friends. If something happens to me, he did it. Don't give him any'a my money. Burn it before you give it to him!'
Soon we were all laughing--even Marta. To have told this story about herself--exaggerated though it was--was an act of love on Pam's part.
Next I told a story about my divorce. Then Maria told a story. It was as if we were pooling our sadness and making a poultice to draw the sorrow out of Marta--if only for that moment. This is what girlfriends do, I kept thinking.
As terrible as the night had been, I drove home feeling peaceful. Nothing had been solved exactly. We couldn't bring Edgar back. What we could do is tell Marta by our presence, 'Look: We're all in this together. This time it's your grief. Next time it could be ours.'
The grief continues. A week after the June meeting of mothers and gangs there was another shooting death, and the peace process was derailed again. When I found Pam late in the afternoon after the shooting, she had been on the street all day, talking with homeboys of both sides, calming things down.
'Doesn't it sometimes seem hopeless?' I blurted when I finally reached her.
'Well,' she said, 'on the day I spent four and a half hours in the mall, shopping for a suit to bury Joseph'--her 13-year-old godson--'I did feel hopeless. I had planned on buying him the suit for his eighth-grade graduation. But instead, there I am trying to find a suit for his funeral.' Her voice cracked for a moment. 'That day, I felt real hopeless. I was so filled with anger and rage that I couldn't even hug my own kids 'cause I didn't want them to feel what I was feeling, it was so terrible. And the other mothers are the same as me. They're hurting and they're angry. [For the] community, these deaths are like an earthquake that has shattered us down to ground level.'
She paused to steady herself. 'But we can't stay that way, you know what I'm saying? Because if we do, it means we are hopeless and our children are hopeless. No. We are going to make this peace work.