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G-Dog and the Home Boys : When Guns Are Blazing and the Bullets Fly, the Gangsters of Pico-Aliso Turn to Father Gregory Boyle

August 11, 1991|CELESTE FREMON | Celeste Fremon's last piece for Los Angeles Times Magazine concerned the final days of Bruno Bettelheim. She is writing a book on Father Boyle and the Pico-Aliso gangs

At exactly 7 p.m. on an uncommonly warm night in early March, 1990, some 300 mourners, most of them members of the Latino gang the East L.A. Dukes, descend upon Dolores Mission Church at the corner of 3rd and Gless streets in Boyle Heights. They arrive by the carload and cram themselves into the scarred wooden pews that fill the sanctuary. As they file into the small stucco building, they cast edgy glances toward the street, as if expecting trouble. They are here for the funeral of Hector Vasquez, a.k.a. Flaco, 17, killed by a single shot to the head two nights before in a drive-by incident that took place at the nearby Aliso Village housing project.

The attire worn this night conforms to the unwritten gang code of dress. Girl gang members wear their hair long at the bottom and teased high at the crown, their lipstick blood-red. The boys sport perfectly pressed white Penney's T-shirts, dark Pendleton shirts and cotton work pants called Dickies, worn four sizes too big and belted, a contemporary interpretation of the old pachuco style. About 20 boys and girls wear sweat shirts emblazoned with iron-on Old English lettering that reads: "IN LOVING MEMORY OF OUR HOMIE FLACO R.I.P."

Outside the church, the police are very much in evidence. A couple of black-and-whites sit just around the corner, motors running. Two beige unmarked cars, the kind favored by the LAPD's special gang unit, and one plain white Housing Police sedan continuously circle the block.

At first, the mood in the church is tense, expectant. But when taped synthesizer music throbs from loudspeakers, the sound seems to open an emotional spigot. The shoulders of the mourners start to shake with grief.

Behind the altar, a bearded man in glasses and priest's vestments sits quietly, watching the crying gangsters. When the music ends, Father Gregory Boyle rises and, taking a microphone, steps down to a point smack in front of the first row of mourners. From a distance, with his receding hair line and beard going to gray, he looks well past middle age. Up close, he is clearly much younger, not yet even 40.

Boyle takes a breath. "I knew Flaco for a long time," he says, his gaze traveling from face to face in the pews. "He used to work here at the church. I knew him as a very loving, great-hearted and kind man." Boyle pauses. "And now we shouldn't ask who killed Flaco, but rather what killed him. Flaco died of a disease that is killing La Raza, a disease called gang-banging." The crowd shifts nervously.

"So how do we honor Flaco's memory?" Boyle asks. "We will honor him best by doing what he would want us to do." Another pause. "He would want us to stop killing each other."

All at once, there is a commotion in the sixth row. A hard-eyed kid of 18 with the street name Magoo stands bolt upright and makes his way to the center aisle. Slowly, deliberately, he walks down the aisle, until he stands in front of Boyle, staring the priest straight in the eye. Then he turns and walks out a side door.

The air in the church is as brittle as glass when Boyle begins speaking again: "If we knew Flaco and loved Flaco, then we would stop killing each other."

Four more gangsters stand and walk out. Boyle's face reddens and then turns pale, as the mourners wait to see what he will do. Finally his jaw sets. "I loved Flaco," he says, his eyes starting to tear. "And I swear on Flaco's dead body that he would want us to stop killing each other."

The words explode in crisp, stunning bursts like so many rounds of live ammunition. Two more gang members get up and leave--but these boys walk with their heads down, their gaits rapid and scuttling. The rest of the mourners sit stock still, transfixed by the ferocity of Boyle's gaze. "We honor his memory," he says quietly, "if we can do this."

FATHER GREGORY BOYLE IS THE PASTOR OF DOLORES MISSION Church, which serves a parish that is unique in several ways. First, it is the poorest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles--it is dominated by a pair of housing projects: Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Second, within the parish boundaries, which enclose about two square miles of Boyle Heights east of the Los Angeles River, seven Latino gangs and one African-American gang claim neighborhoods. This means that in an area smaller than the UCLA campus there are eight separate armies of adolescents, each equipped with small- and large-caliber weapons, each of which may be at war with one or more of the others at any given moment.

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