SAN DIEGO — Fernando Bernardino is a slave to rockabilly.
He wears tight-fitting jeans, a big Western belt, cowboy boots and a bright red shirt that might go well in a bowling alley. He listens to Los Lobos and the Blasters, his favorite bands, and walks with a cocky swagger.
He figures he's earned it.
To Bernardino, identity and pride are major concepts. If you grow up in Logan Heights like he has, you learn pretty quickly the need for asserting yourself.
And your machismo .
You're bused to La Jolla for school, he says. You're a constant target of rival Latino gangs in a neighborhood so tough you can almost feel the fear. You're put down in an affluent society, most of which, he says, only sees Logan Heights as "they peer down their noses from the windows of Mercedeses, passing over the bridge." That's the Coronado Bridge, looming over the neighborhood like a dragon.
Massaging his exaggerated crew cut, Bernardino says he found himself--his identity--in Logan Heights. To be exact, in a barn-like building on Logan Avenue that he calls "the place . . . or you might say, my home."
Bernardino, 18, is what the counselors and leaders of Youth for Progress call a success story. He, like many kids who pass through the door, was a candidate for the wild side of life. He has never been in trouble with the law, but plenty of his friends--now pool-shooting, Ping Pong-playing amigos --have. He was never a gang member, but plenty of his friends once were--friends he has won over inside the gray-walled building that seems to radiate an entirely different color.
The main way Bernardino benefited from the program was finding himself at a critical time. At a turning point--early adolescence--he could have joined a gang. He could have gotten in trouble with the law. He could have kept drifting.
Boxing turned him around.
He cultivated that sense of identity and pride in boxing, one of several recreational programs offered by Youth for Progress in its Logan Avenue location and three others in San Diego County. Youth for Progress has been around, under one name or another, in this or that location, since 1967.
The Logan Avenue location, the first and strongest, was started by Simon Judge, who felt that "the kids" needed a place to play. Judge's interest remains that of the program's--the underprivileged and disadvantaged of the county.
Connie Dawson Hernandez, 33, was one of those kids. Confidence is the first word she mentions in flashing back to the Logan Youth Center, the original name and one of three since '67.
She gained the confidence to get a job, to assert herself in a community she didn't always understand. She gained the confidence to win friends and influence people, to be herself.
She gained confidence in marriage--she met her husband of 14 years at the center.
Most of all she learned basic skills from a man--Simon Judge--whom she calls "simply tremendous. . . . Ninety-nine percent of the people who went through there owe him dearly ."
She learned typing, filing, taking minutes, organization, arts, crafts. . . . It was confidence of a professional kind that led to her current job with Pacific Bell Security. Many of her colleagues with the phone company were proteges of Judge's.
She learned not to be ashamed of "the neighborhood" and knows what Bernardino, a boy of a different generation, means in talking of the "power of confidence." Whether he goes to college or plots an immediate career path, he now has the confidence, he said, to make a decision. In his case, boxing was the motivator.
"It may seem like a brutal sport," he said, "but it taught me discipline and self-sacrifice, qualities I never had before. And, it taught me love. For this place, man. For this place."
Lately, Bernardino and his friends from the neighborhood have been trying to pay back a bit of what he calls "the debt." Fifteen of them worked long into the night, several nights straight, to get the building painted for a recent commemorative occasion--one that brought Mayor Roger Hedgecock and City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez out recently to pay homage to the center.
"I'd keep painting," Bernardino said, "just to show these guys how I feel."
It may seem like a noble cause--helping the Bernardinos of the world grow into model citizens--but you won't be able to tell it by the funding now. The halcyon days of Judge's era (1967 to 1973, when he retired) are long gone.
Pamela Mills-Peterson, the energetic executive director of Youth for Progress, said it's no longer "trendy" to fund such programs, or to look with favor on the social workers who run them.
"In the '60s, we were respected," she said. "Now we're looked on as fools. Private enterprise and Yuppiedom seem to think we're total incompetents. 'Can't you get a job in the real world?' they seem to say, as if this isn't the real world."