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Murals: Symbols of Pride or Violence to East L.A. Gangs?

October 27, 1986|MARCOS BRETON | Breton is a Times reporter trainee; Nieto is a Times photographer trainee. and

Alongside the graffiti-splashed walls of a Boyle Heights neighborhood, where spray-painted names and gang insignia cover mom-and-pop stores, a 10-by-40-foot mural rests untouched.

Set against the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, the painting shows a Christ figure emerging, arms spread, from a Bible. On one side is an Aztec warrior and on the other a modern street gang.

But more important than what is there may be what isn't.

The mural is free of vandalism, spared in the usual graffiti sprees because it is, as one neighborhood gang member said, "all about respect."

It is, in fact, all about the East L.A. 13 gang, painted for its 50 or so members by a controversial county agency. Community Youth Gang Services has created murals for six Eastside gangs in an effort to establish a rapport with the gangs that it considers vital to its campaign against street violence.

Pride and Neighborhood

To East L.A. 13, its mural is "like gold," according to gang member Armando (Priest) Gomez. He said the artwork symbolizes the gang's pride in itself and its neighborhood.

But some Hollenbeck division police officers see the East L.A. 13 mural only as a symbol of the frustrating battle they are fighting against the gangs, a battle made more difficult, they say, because the mural was dedicated to a gang member who was under investigation for murder at the time he was killed.

It is a youth services field worker, Danny Martinez, a self-taught artist and former gang member himself, who approaches gangs like East L.A. 13 and asks them what they would like on a mural.

(Murals have a particular significance in Latino neighborhoods. A school of mural art carrying social commentary started in Mexico City in the 1920s.)

Martinez solicited the ideas of East L.A. 13 members in February, then received permission from grocer Miguel Mendoza to paint an exterior wall of his store, which stands at Brooklyn Avenue and Fickett Street.

The county youth agency see the murals as a "symbol of a truce," Martinez said. "Rival gang members will scratch out other gangs' insignia when they see them on the street but they leave the murals alone."

Before he started the mural, Martinez gained East L.A. 13 members' trust because he had been through similar experiences. Unlike some of the others, however, he decided to change his life when he was 18. "I was arrested and I had my car impounded. . . . It was right then that I decided to hang up my gloves, grow up, and face my responsibilities," said Martinez, 31.

Knifed to Death

As the East L.A. 13 mural neared completion, 19-year-old Anthony (Chico) Barrera was knifed to death in a gang fight. East L.A. 13 members asked Martinez--who had done most of the artwork himself with some help from gang members--to dedicate the mural to Barrera because, "he was one of our first home boys to get killed."

Martinez agreed and painted an inscription to Barrera and beneath it the Lord's Prayer in cholo slang, along with the words viva y deja vivir , "live and let live" in Spanish.

Martinez said dedicating the mural to Barrera seemed logical because the slain youth had been proud to be a gang member.

East L.A. 13 members said Martinez succeeded in capturing that sense of pride, not only in his work honoring Barrera but in his portraits of the five gang members who posed for the mural.

"This mural is like a treasure . . . it's like gold for us," Armando Gomez said.

The mural, however, is no treasure to Detective Ben Lovato and his partner, Joe Friend.

Lovato, a veteran of 17 years in Boyle Heights, said he hates the mural because it glorifies both gang violence and Barrera, whom Lovato was investigating for murder at the time he was killed.

"They dedicated the mural to him!" the detective exclaimed. "What are they trying to say?"

Witnesses had linked Barrera to the murder of Jose Guerra, 16, a Mexican national who was knifed to death in Boyle Heights in February, Lovato said. But Barrera was murdered before he could be questioned, the detective added.

Both the Barrera and Guerra murders remain under investigation.

For Lovato, the artwork is a reminder of the Guerra case and of his police station's basic mistrust of the youth agency.

"I don't know what their job is . . . what they are there for," Lovato said.

Steve Valdivia, director of the 5-year-old agency, said some police officers will always mistrust the county youth agency because of the way it tries to establish relationships with the gangs.

"When CYGS said it would hire ex-gang members, a lot of cops took it the wrong way," he said.

Martinez said that he and CYGS' other 54 field workers use their rapport with the youths and their knowledge of the streets to talk gangs out of getting into trouble. Some agency staff members arrange football games. Martinez paints.

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