The front cover of Barrio Warriors is the first hint that you won't find light reading in this new community-written magazine.
It portrays eight young men, all staring unflinchingly into the camera. Some are carrying rifles, the others schoolbooks, and at the bottom, 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 now making its debut in Orange and Los Angeles 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 has long been active in crime-prevention education projects in both counties.
The overall message of "Barrio Warriors" is a classic one for ethnic-minority activists: raising self-esteem and ethnic community pride, setting sights squarely on college and a career.
In this, Frias has mixed more down-to-earth goals: steering young people away from potential crime, deglamorizing gang involvement and pointing out what he calls the self-destructive nature of gangs.
Frias characterizes the quarterly magazine project as a "strictly grass-roots" volunteer effort involving 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, he said, is often reinforced by the "glamorizing images" depicted on television and rock videos. This shows up in the fast-growing number of "gang emulators"--youth groups or "wannabes" who are not involved in criminal activities but who have adopted gang-like dress and other customs. The danger is that many such groups may "escalate" into criminal behavior, Frias cautioned.
For these reasons, Frias said the need for more preventive educational projects aimed at the high-school-age population is more urgent than ever.
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 the barrio-raised readers.
The magazine portrays gang members as belonging to a lethal phenomenon--"hate, drugs, weapons, prison and self-destruction," as one commentator described it.
There is an essay, "Please God, I'm Only 13," depicting 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 done intentionally.
"We're aiming at the youths--almost all of them born and raised here," he said. "Even so, one purpose is to provide another publication to reinforce using and reading English, not Spanish."
Using a magazine format in the anti-gang campaign is another way to reach the "high-risk" street youths. "We're not supplanting the other methods, we're only supplementing them," Frias said. "We see our magazine as a small window opening to the reality of the crisis."
He maintains that there is no other magazine like Barrio Warriors--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," he said.
"We're talking the same (street) language, but with an entirely different purpose," he said. "We're using some of the same kind of (low-rider) pictures and barrio group photos, but we're also presenting a message that we hope will change people's lives.
"Hey, we don't expect the guys to read it right out there on the streets," Frias added. "We're hoping they will take it home with them, mull it over, let it sink in."