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    Tough Love

    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.

    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.

    Published on Oct 9, 2007

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