Standing before a small white coffin, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Wednesday that two small girls gunned down last week are martyrs of gang warfare and called on residents citywide to have the courage to rise up against gangs.
Mahony delivered the stern words to about 300 mourners attending funeral services for 3-year-old Denise Silva of Boyle Heights. He said each member of the community must take responsibility for escalating gang violence.
Families from East and South Los Angeles, where the shootings occurred, must transform the killings of Denise and 18-month-old Sabrina Haley into a "a resurrection, a dramatic turning around of the terrible violence of the whole gang culture," Mahony said.
The deaths last week of the two children, gunned down by gang members while at their fathers' sides, outraged area residents. Scores of people cast aside fears of gang retaliation and contacted police to pass on information that led to the speedy arrests of suspects in both killings.
Denise was shot through the heart last Friday night as she walked hand-in-hand with her father to a corner grocery store at 1st and Savannah streets, an intersection that police said is the turf line of two warring gangs.
Two gang members, Andres Varela, 22, and a 17-year-old who was not identified, were arrested Tuesday on murder charges, after Varela's mother led police to her son's hideout.
Two days before Denise was shot, Sabrina had been hit by gunshots while she sat beside her father as his car was stopped at a traffic light at 48th Street and Avalon Boulevard. Again, two gang members were arrested. James Taylor, 22, and Everett Butler, 19, face murder charges.
Mahony said he was "dumbfounded and so saddened" by news of the two deaths that he felt compelled to celebrate the Roman Catholic funeral Mass for Denise at Our Lady of Talpa Church.
Enrique Silva, the child's father, tearfully helped carry his daughter's four-foot-long coffin--swathed in white satin and covered with pink roses and white carnations--into the church.
Parishioners and community residents, who did not know the family but said they shared its pain, helped to fill the pews of the church. Some said that few other gang-related killings have so touched the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
"I really believe that this means something to the community," said Rose Mesa, 64, a parishioner and lifelong Boyle Heights resident. "People know that they have to get together and get something started to stop all this. There is too much sadness."
Dressed in white vestments, Mahony encouraged residents to get involved in a recently announced "Hope in Youth" campaign.
The campaign, launched by church members and clergy, is a five-year effort to establish a network of paid counselors to help families and youths with school, jobs and recreational programs. It is hoped that the program can stem the tide of gang violence that claimed 771 lives in Los Angeles County last year.
"Every gang member has a mother and father. Every gang member on the street has some relatives," Mahony said. "Are we willing to come forward and say we will not hide or protect anyone guilty (of gang violence)?"
Later at a graveside service, as Mahony blessed the 3-year-old girl's coffin and while mariachis played soothing melodies, a group of neighborhood youths--who said they are gang members--stood nearby. Some wept and others were angry about the killing.
They said they doubt that conditions on the street will change as a result of the killings. They said people do not understand that gang culture is entrenched in their lives.
"My heart goes out to the family. But the way things are, it will happen again," said Ricardo Arias, 19.