A concrete battleground in Pacoima brought them together Saturday for a fast, furious, non-lethal form of urban combat: handball.
Most of the combatants sported tattoos, buzz cuts and other street gang regalia; a few had buckshot and knife scars. They represented several generations of gangs spawned in the 2,000-resident Van Nuys Pierce Park housing project, from teen-age "youngsters" to veteranos on parole.
Others were young Mexican immigrants who had never belonged to gangs, as their long hair and nondescript clothes indicated.
What they had in common was mutual respect and passion for a sport they have played since childhood at Maclay Junior High School across the street from the housing project. The school's outdoor handball courts are neutral turf; the tournament there Saturday was the third this year conducted by school officials and gang counselors.
Trophies and cash prizes are provided by Nobles Property Management Inc.--which manages the Van Nuys Pierce Park Apartments--with the goal of providing a healthy and constructive activity for the youths from the area.
"It's a great idea," said Willie Carrillo, a husky, genial, walrus-mustached 35-year-old just paroled from prison after doing time for robbery. His torso was alive with tattoos. "These are good kids. I've known some of them since they were in diapers."
The fenced courts behind Carrillo echoed with ricochets of rubber balls striking walls and cheers and curses in Spanish and English. He displayed callused hands and a scar on the bridge of his nose, souvenirs of fierce handball bouts in prison.
"One time the ball hit me right in the eye," he said. "I was in the hospital three weeks. . . . The whole back part of the eye was swollen up. They thought I was going to lose the eye. It finally healed on its own."
Carrillo and teammate Luis Magana, 26, took on Frankie Alvarez, 16, and Alex Aguilar, 15, who said they had been practicing hard over the past few weeks. Frankie and Alex did what they could, but the sheer muscle of the older team overwhelmed them, 15-8.
"You did good, youngster," Carrillo said afterward, cuffing Alvarez on the neck. "Don't worry about it."
About 50 youths and men turned out for the competition, which was the idea of Vice Principal Don Ryan and Manuel Velazquez, a counselor for Community Youth Gang Services. Since the first tournament in March, the courts have remained almost entirely free of graffiti because older gang members have put out the word to respect the playing area, Ryan said.
"There's a lot of respect for competence, for kids who do well," Ryan said. "We realize it's going to be tough to keep them out of gangs. But we tell them you can be a gang member and still be a schoolboy too. They get twice the respect" for achievements in sports or academics.
Magana is an avid handball player. He encourages the teen-agers to stay out of trouble, but acknowledges the difficulty posed by spreading gang activity that has generated a dangerous, shifting field of rivalries.
"The youngsters can see what happened to the older guys," he said. "But it's harder for them because there are so many gangs in Pacoima now. There's a different gang on every block."
Magana said that when he was younger he took part in fights between his Pacoima gang and archrivals from San Fernando. As friends went off to youth camp or prison he avoided serious trouble. He now supports a wife and two children with a steady construction job.
"You grow up in it and you're either a part of it or you're going to have people sweating you wherever you go," he said. "I was ready to back people up, but I never did anything crazy. And I'm jail-free."
When the battle was over Saturday, the first-place trophy and $100 prize were claimed by Carlos Chavarin, 27, and Raul Cajero, 23, two hospital workers who live in San Fernando. They said they have nothing to do with gangs. And they expressed no apprehension about playing with the homeboys who frequent the Maclay courts.
"I don't know anything about gangs," Chavarin said in Spanish. "We play here whenever we can. We've never had any problems."