SANTA ANA — Jessie Espinoza, mother, grandmother and ex-gang member, has seen enough. Now, she wants gang violence to end and peace in her barrio.
So on Saturday, with more than 45 young women looking on--many of them either current or former gang members who were attending a peace meeting at El Salvador Park--Espinoza walked up to a microphone and told them what was in her heart.
"I have a 16-year-old son now, and he's a gang member," Espinoza said, "and, if I want to get him out of the gangs I need to participate in meetings like this."
According to Del Espinosa of Fullerton, the meeting was the first of its kind in Orange County for female members of \o7 la vida loca\f7 --\o7 the crazy life, \f7 the gang life. Espinosa, who is a volunteer for United Barrio Council, said it's part of the same organization that has coordinated similar meetings with young men's gangs.
"Our main thing is the girls play a big part in changing some of the gang boys," Espinosa said. "And, these girls eventually will marry and become mothers in the barrios who also could try and start seeking alternatives and breaking the cycle of gangs."
He was talking about barrio mothers like Espinoza, he said, because although at 31 she is still relatively young, she can speak from experience.
In a brief interview, Espinoza told her story. She joined a girls' gang in Garden Grove. She became pregnant at 14. She started drug use later in her teens, and her life soon deteriorated into a cycle of drug use, drug arrests and jail.
"When I got put in jail my mother had my son," Espinoza said. "But the county took him away and put him in a foster home because they thought that when I got out of jail he would come back to live with me."
She made up her mind to kick her heroin use and boasted proudly on Saturday to her attentive audience, "I'm been clean now for more than seven years."
When she sat down they were still clapping.
Alice Luna, 22, from a Stanton gang, also spoke before the group.
"The main thing that brought me out here was my brother's death," Luna said. "I used to be in the gangs and stuff and was always protecting my neighborhood. But when my brother died he wasn't into any gangs."
The death of her brother, 16-year-old Felipe Luna, occurred at a party in 1991. He had been dancing with a young girl when a stranger walked up and asked him, "Where are you from?"
"He said, like, 'I'm not from anywhere,' " Luna said. "The guy pulled out a shotgun and shot him in the face. . . . I was there. My brother died in my arms."
Jessie Aredondo, another United Barrio Council volunteer, ministers a religious message and says she knows about the problems of those who had gathered for the meeting.
"I'm in the streets all the time," Aredondo said. "I see where the problem is. All around Orange County it seems that every (community) center is helping out senior citizens. With few exceptions, there are hardly any programs for kids right now in this county."
"The Bible says that you should think of these young children as arrows with us as the bows," Aredondo continued. "Are we helping them? I don't think so. We have youngsters at 8 years of age who are already making up their minds to become gang members."
Aredondo and Espinosa said they hope the young gang members view them only as a motivational team, akin to counselors.
"Someone who will listen," Espinosa said.
As to criticism that Aredondo relies too heavily on a religion-filled message, she had a quick answer.
"We've had complaints that our other meetings are too 'churchy,' that we talk about Jesus too much," she said during the meeting. "But it's interesting that you can use the Lord at least two times for your use, and that's only when you guys or your boyfriends get shot and someone dies and there's a funeral, then all the \o7 santos \f7 (saints) come out, don't they?"