LONG BEACH — Henderson Avenue is the territory of violent youth gangs and special police patrols. It is also the home of immigrant families with modest dreams who have come here to start over.
Narrower than most streets, unused by through traffic, Henderson's 1400 block seems a world unto itself.
It is lined by two-story walk-ups whose front stoops are crowded with Latino youngsters and whose hallways echo with mariachi music. Kids on bikes whoosh down sidewalks past toddlers left in their sisters' care.
At least 20 gangs have scrawled their names on buildings. Even the ice cream truck carries the initials of youth rivals. Kids talk of a stabbing on the corner and of shotguns waved in their faces. One woman has taken in a relative whose husband was murdered by a teen-ager this month.
"This block is right out of a New York ghetto," said Officer Steve Lasiter, who patrolled it for three years.
"There's repeated gunfire and a lot of heroin business going on," gang unit Officer Norm Sorenson said. A special Metro Unit--responding to landlord complaints of gang intimidation--recently made 16 arrests in one week, mostly for narcotics.
But to the Mexican families who pack most of its small apartments, Henderson Avenue in the west-central city is the better life. To them, the gangs are just a dangerous nuisance.
Mercedes Soto, 33, and nearly her whole family--brothers, sisters and cousins--abandoned the outskirts of Guadalajara and now live in five apartments on Henderson's 1400 block.
At least one member of each household has a job, she said. Most make about $150 a week. Rent starts at $350 a month.
"It's a good street because there's a lot of Mexicans," said Soto, who sells candies, chips and vegetables to children who call her apartment the "Candy House."
Across the street, Delia Rodriguez, 34, lives with her husband and five sons. Her window screens are ripped and chunks of ceiling stucco are falling, but she says she hopes for nothing more.
"At least we don't starve here," she said. Her dream is that her sons "will be good boys" and not join the gangs.
Jose Ramirez, a bright ninth-grader at nearby Washington Junior High, hopes that his family, area residents for a decade, will be granted amnesty as illegal immigrants and that he will find a job.
"I'll buy my mom a house. She's always working. She says she's never known the word lazy . If I earn as much as she does, I'll tell her, 'I'll work and you stay home,' so when I come in the house she'll be there," he says.
Jose and 13 relatives, most from the Mexican farming village of Jacona, live in a two-bedroom apartment. All four parents work, Jose says, and now it is his turn to get a job.
Although its gang problems are worse than most, Henderson Avenue is like many other streets in western Long Beach south of Pacific Coast Highway, where large, low-income Latino families have moved during the last decade.
Since 1980, the city's population has swelled by 45,000; about half of the new arrivals have been Latino, according to state and city estimates. Of Long Beach's 75,000 Latinos, perhaps 30,000 are immigrants, community leaders estimate.
"Mostly they're Mexican nationals working to try to get their piece of the American pie. They're not the ones causing the problems," said Sorenson, who usually cruises Henderson once a day, gathering intelligence on gangs.
Some of the troublemakers live in Henderson's battered apartments. They are members of three cliques of the Eastside Longo gang--the young Crazy Rascals, the older Lonely Boys and the oldest and most hardened, the Barrio Viejo (old town) gang, Sorenson said.
Most Henderson families lead simple lives. The men work long hours as janitors and in restaurants, factories and construction. Some women also work, often in factories or building maintenance, but most say they stay home with their youngest children. Older children either walk to nearby schools or are bused to distant classrooms that are less crowded.
"These are families with a very low level of education and self-esteem, and they live in a state of fear because so many of them are here illegally," said Armando Vazquez-Ramos, director of a downtown Latino center.
That often means that the immigrants do not complain to police or other city departments and are reluctant to pursue their legal rights, city and community officials said.
Vazquez-Ramos, whose Centro de la Raza processes amnesty claims, said he knows many families that have been in the United States continually since 1982 and qualify for legal residence, but who have returned to Mexico as jobs dried up. After years of living in fear of immigration agents, they so distrust the government that they will not apply for amnesty, he said.
That fear apparently carries over into day-to-day life on Henderson Avenue. Porches crawl with cockroaches, but Ray Liddicoat, the city's chief building inspector, said he cannot remember the last complaint his office received from the street.