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War Is Put on Hold for Day at Work : Gangs: Garage owner hires gang members-- often from warring sides--to lay down guns for a while and work in his custom detailing shop.

October 29, 1989|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, George Gallardo and Joe Pineda "mad-dogged" each other, silently staring each other down as if looks could kill.

They already knew each other from years on the streets of Pomona, where George's homeboys had shot at Joe's homeboys and Joe's homeboys had shot at George's.

But after a week of working side-by-side at the R and R Custom Detailing shop, these two teen-age members of warring gangs have discovered that they can live in peace, at least for a few hours a day.

"At first, I didn't like the idea," says Joe, 17, a member of the "Sur Trece" gang in South Pomona. "But now we just kind of shine each other on. I don't disrespect him and he don't disrespect me."

George, 16, a member of Twelfth Street, one of the city's oldest and largest Chicano gangs, returns the compliment.

"We just try to keep it cool in here," he says. "Just do our work and don't be startin' nothin'. Out on the street is something else."

In a city where increasing gang violence has contributed to a record 39 homicides so far this year, there is a truce in this cinder-block garage on 2nd Street.

Its owner, Ruben Guevara, a former gang member himself, does something that few employers would consider today: He pays $4 an hour to gang-bangers, young cholos with criminal records and street-tough wardrobes, just to teach them that there are better tools than a pistol for earning a reputation.

Not only that, but this hulking man who is known as "Ice Box" makes a point of hiring teen-agers from warring gangs, so that the kids who wax the cherry Chevy one afternoon could just as easily have been shooting up each other's turf the night before.

About all he asks in return is that no weapons be brought to work and that respect be practiced in the garage.

"I try to be like a father to them," says Guevara, 35, who left the streets in 1974 after being placed on probation for his role in several gang fights. "I'd give them the shirt off my back, just as long as they keep their word and try to work together as a family."

It helps to have a big stick backing up such soft talk, and Guevara, a bearded giant of a man with enough girth to fill the pants of two homeboys, inspires awe as he paces through the garage in his blue shop apron, barking orders to his wards.

"Look at me," he says with a hearty laugh and 18-inch-long screwdriver gripped in his meaty hand. "I'm big."

In the two years that Guevara has had the shop, he has hired a number of youths referred to him by the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Others he already knew from the streets.

And a few, including George Gallardo and Joe Pineda, have come from the Soledad Enrichment Action center, which operates an alternative school for high-risk youths just across the street from the garage.

"Ruben is somebody who can talk to these kids for real," said Lydia Maldonado-Calzada, director of the Soledad school. "What better role model than somebody who's like one of your own."

Guevara, who joined the Twelfth Street gang while a student at Ganesha High School in the early 1970s, credits his reform to a probation officer who urged him to channel his energies into a local car club.

It was through that experience that Guevara honed his automotive skills, learning to sandblast, steam-clean, paint and buff old clunkers into sleek riding machines.

"I'm working now with the kids of guys I used to run around with . . . guys who are still in the penitentiary," Guevara said. "I figure if I grab these kids now and keep them busy, maybe I can help them avoid making some of the same mistakes."

Yet nobody should mistake his garage for a church of instant miracles. Allegiances among the estimated 1,300 gang members in Pomona are deeply rooted, with some youths coming from families in which gang activity has been a way of life for several generations, police say.

Even those who have the benefit of Guevara's example find that the lessons of the garage are often hard to apply to the cold facts of the streets.

Ask Joe Pineda, who lives with some homeboys in the Sur Trece neighborhood and whose big problem today is that his mother is renting a place on Twelfth Street turf and he doesn't want to risk going over to visit her.

He says he'd like to settle down someday and not have to be looking over his shoulder every time he leaves the house. But for now, his homeboys are all he's got.

"I don't go looking for problems," he says. "But my homeboys, we're like family. Say your homeboy kills my homeboy. I'll go kill two of yours. That's just the way it goes. Back and forth."

Still, George Gallardo wonders if maybe, just maybe, with a good job and the right woman, he could break that cycle. If he believed they stood a chance, he'd take his 15-year-old girlfriend, who's already three months pregnant, and go somewhere far away, maybe even join the Army.

"I'd like to get away and forget about all this," he says. "I don't want my kid to grow up here. I don't want him to die young."

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