The front cover of Barrio Warriors is the first hint that you won't find light reading in this new community-written magazine.
It pictures eight young men, all staring unflinchingly into the camera. Some are carrying rifles, the others schoolbooks. And at bottom are the words: "Weapons of Wisdom Over Weapons of Death."
This stark theme runs through the entire 52-page Barrio Warriors, a privately supported, nearly advertising-free publication making its debut in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The magazine is aimed at school-age Latinos and is being distributed largely by members of the college and high-school student organization MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan).
"We see this as a special magazine with a very special personal message," said publisher Gus Frias, 33, who long has been active in crime-prevention education projects in both counties.
The overall message of Barrio Warriors is a classic one for ethnic-minority activists: Raise self-esteem and ethnic community pride, set sights squarely on college and a career.
In this, Frias has mixed more down-to-earth goals: Steer young people away from potential crime, deglamorize gang involvement, and point out what he calls the self-destructive nature of gangs.
The quarterly magazine, which Frias characterizes as a "strictly grass-roots" volunteer effort, includes short commentaries, poems and essays written by Latino educators, professionals and community activists throughout the state. The project has been launched with $20,000 in private donations; the first-issue run is 10,000 copies, Frias said.
Although the regular per-copy price is $5, Frias said most of the debut issue will be given away to ensure maximum outreach to the magazine's prime audience. He expects that, while later issues will also be given away or sold at sharply reduced prices to many barrio youths, the magazine will become self-supporting as various organizations buy it in bulk.
"The timing for this magazine is really crucial," said Frias, noting that gang membership has increased to an estimated 100,000 in Los Angeles County and 10,000 in Orange County.
"We know that young people join gangs for many of the same reasons they join other groups. They seek identity, respect, belonging and support," said Frias, who since 1987 has managed a drug and crime prevention program under the Orange County Department of Education. (The magazine is not connected to his county job, he said.)
The attraction of gangs is often reinforced by the glamorizing images of them on television and rock videos, he said. This shows up in the fast-growing number of "gang emulators"--youth groups not involved in criminal activities but that have adopted gang-like dress and other customs. The danger is that many such groups may escalate to criminal behavior, Frias said.
For these reasons, Frias said the need is more urgent than ever for more preventive educational projects aimed at the high-school age population.
This is where a magazine like Barrio Warriors comes in, Frias said--"a no-nonsense, straight-talking" format that underscores the dehumanizing, unheroic aspects of gangs.
The style is pure staccato: short bursts of highly intense, ethnically proud language that speaks directly to barrio-raised readers.
There is an essay, "Please God, I'm Only 13," that depicts a boy, shot to death in a gang clash, speaking from the grave.
And the poem "Run Homeboy Run," penned by Frias, opens with this warning:
Don't let the (gang) madness catch up to you,
Run homeboy, run!
Don't let death get a hold of you,
Run homeboy, run!
The magazine is written only in English, which Frias said was intentional:
"We're aiming at the youths--almost all of them born and raised here. Even so, one purpose is to provide another publication to reinforce using and reading English, not Spanish."
Frias maintained there is no other magazine like Barrio Warriors--one devoted solely to the gang issue and written and packaged in a street youth-oriented manner: "All you have out there, for the guys to read, are 'low-rider' (car) magazines.
"We're talking the same (street) language, but with an entirely different purpose. . . .
"Hey, we don't expect the guys to read it right out there on the streets. We're hoping they will take it home with them, mull it over, let it sink in."
In Barrio Warriors, the gang-connected dark side is profusely illustrated. There are charts displaying the mounting gang-related homicide rate and depictions of funerals and grieving families. There is a photograph of a slaying victim in his casket.
"We figure what's going to catch the attention of these guys are pictures, and more pictures, with people and families they can identify with--and maybe even feel a sense of the grief and tragedy of these senseless deaths," Frias said.
But as the dramatic counterpoint, Barrio Warriors also presents an unmistakably hopeful side: sketches of Latino achievers in education, business, government and community service and other career fields.