Some of these boys commit crimes, but she said she thinks of many of them as victims, not as criminals, and it frustrates her enormously that every kid who hangs out with a gang is stereotyped.
There is a decades-old joke in Los Angeles, told sardonically, in which a kid with a Mexican accent says defensively to a cop: "It's not a gang, it's a club ." To Castillo, whose devotion to the good name of her neighborhood is as fiery as any gang member's, it is not a joke.
Drive through my barrio, she says. There are kids all over the street, some gang, some not from the gang. How can you tell who is whom? How can you put a label on every gang kid? How can you say they are all the same?
"There's humor out there. There's experiences you wouldn't believe. There's laughter, there's happiness, there are people who are artists, people who are so talented," she said.
"We have people out there who are gifted, write songs, sing. But these children are never recognized. Where do they go? They label these kids 'gangs.' Everything is gangs. . . . Our kids--if they pull a trigger, something must be wrong. A normal person cannot just pick up a gun and shoot just anybody. Something happened to this kid along the line--family, spiritually. . . ."
There was never a doubt that Victor Herrera's clique was a gang, not a club.
"Say something happened to one of the guys, he got shot by another gang. Oh! We got 42 members in the Tinies. Call all your homeboys. Boom boom boom. You got a prez, vice president, treasurer. 'Hey, we got to throw a meeting. They shot so-and-so.' You got your sergeant of arms that's got the gun, you got your prez that will tell you what to do. When I used to be prez of my clique, it was: 'You, you and you, get this shotgun, go down to 38's neighborhood (a rival gang), shoot somebody, don't come back until you do it. And I better hear something about it. And if you don't do it, you better wind up in jail.
"I have to know the streets. If something happened to one of our guys in East L.A., this and this street--oh, they're in Little Valley. Brooklyn and Hazard--oh, they were by Hazard. Tell me they were in South Gate--well, Elm Street shot 'em. You gotta know your areas, man.
"It's like they told me when I grew up, they told me, 'If you see four guys, and they tell you 18th Street (the largest and reputedly the nastiest Chicano gang in Los Angeles), and you from Florence, you just better get your ass kicked. I've been places where we've been surrounded: 'Where you from?' 'Florence.' 'The hell with Florence.' 'Hey, the hell with \o7 you\f7 --all of you!' And I know I'm gonna get my ass kicked.
'Shoot 'Em Again'
"We got homeboys who get shot and they stay alive, and they say 'Florence! Florence!' And they shoot 'em again till they're dead. That happened to my homeboy at 55th and Main a couple years ago." Herrera's voice fell soft. "They passed by, shot him, he fell, they came up: 'Where are you from?' 'Florence!' So they finished him off.
"To people it ain't no sense. But to a gang member it's having a lot of heart. That's what you call having a lot of heart."
The romanticism of these moments is belied by the desperation behind them. Julie Portillo is an expert.
Last July, Portillo's 21-year-old son, Alex Avalos, who had not lived at home for six years, telephoned her to say he was getting out of prison.
Portillo did not celebrate.
"I was scared to death," she said. "I didn't know what had happened to him in there, so I got rid of all my big knives."
Alex's mother thought he was an addict, hooked on the local gang in the Winter Gardens section of East Los Angeles, where she lives in a one-bedroom apartment. Her son, who has tattooed "Winter Gardens" all over his body, was a hopeless follower, she said, compelled to show off in front of his homeboys. Alex had been in and out of juvenile detention centers for drug-related offenses and then served three years of a five-year sentence at Folsom State Prison for assault and robbery.
'See Good Things'
Portillo, a high-school dropout who supplements her unemployment check by selling dried flower bouquets that she makes in her kitchen, reared Alex and three other children by herself. When Alex was young she worked as a nightclub waitress. For a number of years the family was so poor that they could not afford to pay an electric bill; at night they moved about by candlelight and stored food at Portillo's mother's apartment across the hallway.
"I would try to take them to as many places as I could afford so they could see good things," Portillo said. "But as they got older, they started getting into trouble."
All of them wound up spending time in Juvenile Hall. The first time Alex went there it was because his mother turned him in. He was 12.