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Camp Aims to Help Youths Come Together

July 30, 1994|SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are unwritten rules for Ventura County gang members about mixing with teen-agers from other towns. Probably the most important one is not to mix all.

"We don't like them, and they don't like us," said Daniel, a 14-year-old Moorpark gang member who asked not be fully identified.

That cardinal rule of separation will be broken this weekend as local gang members and non-gang members alike gather for two days at an isolated Santa Barbara County campground.

The camp sponsor is a local group called Lucha. Formed in 1979 by self-described Chicano activists, Lucha now claims as members many educators, probation officers and social workers.

The group has worked as an advocate for Latino youths in police abuse cases. But the co-ed camp-out is its only formal activity.

For two weekends each summer for 14 years, the group has brought together up to 120 high school and junior high students from tough neighborhoods in Moorpark, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ventura, Fillmore and Santa Paula--and sent them camping.

Although many are gang members, other campers were picked by recruiters because they come from neighborhoods plagued by violence or are from families that could not afford a summer vacation.

"We take kids from the barrio--gang-bangers and kids who've had a rough life--and let them experience the peace and quiet of camping in the country like other kids," said Gabino Aguirre, Lucha vice president and principal of Moorpark's continuation high school.

The two-day outing at a beach campground is filled with workshops and activities meant to help the youngsters see that even though they are from rival neighborhoods, they have a great deal in common.

They just talk some of the time. But most of the weekend is filled with discussions about legal rights, AIDS prevention, cultural awareness and drug abuse.

Since the trips began in 1980, there has not been any violence, Aguirre said. The worst incident involved a few youths last year who tried to collapse a tent as a prank, he said.

The camp-out remains peaceful because the youngsters are in a non-confrontational setting and are surrounded by volunteers, Aguirre said.

"There is no turf up there," he said. "Once they realize they're on neutral ground with nothing to prove, things quiet down."

Maury Acosta, 16, an Oxnard gang member going on the trip for a second time, said he has made many friends. But he was skeptical about its lasting effects.

"It's just two days," he said. "You do make a bunch of friends, but I don't think it changes anything. We might get along up there. And we might stay friends. But when we get back we're still in different gangs."

Even if it is only for a weekend, said Gabe Serrano, president of Lucha, the camp-out is worth weeks of planning and its $6,000 cost.

"Some of these kids go on to finish high school, some go to college, and some do wind up in the criminal justice system," said Serrano, a county probation officer. "Maybe it doesn't turn them (all) around. But even those that I've run into in my work all say they remember Lucha's camp-out. And that they had a good time."

For Serrano, the most important work of the trip is teaching the youngsters about "Chicano" Latino history and culture. "We try to give them some context for why they're so (angry), and how they can overcome that," he said.

Serrano said part of the problem is institutional racism and a school system that does not allow Latino youths to be proud of who they are. He said many of the teen-agers are thought of as criminals before they do anything wrong.

"I don't like the 'gang' label," he said. "It's like the old term 'savages'. It dehumanizes people. A lot of these kids get the label and are written off."

He said that a group of white youths dressed in surfers' clothes or lettermen's jackets who get caught committing a petty crime would not automatically be labeled as gang members.

"I'm not telling them that they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions," he said. "But I do put some of the blame on this society that prematurely criminalizes a whole sector of our youth."

During the camp-out, Oxnard attorney Jorge Alvarado will discuss the youngsters' rights when involved in a police encounter. Another presentation by a Native American is meant to stress the teen-agers' connections to indigenous cultures in Mexico and the U.S. These are lessons that Serrano admits might not reach some of the campers.

"It's the same boring stuff over and over," said Gera, a 17-year-old Oxnard gang member who said he is going to the camp to meet girls. "When it comes down to it, we just don't kick it with those other guys."

Despite Gera's attitude, most of the youths seem willing to suspend hatred or suspicion for a weekend. And many even see the camp leading to greater self esteem--and eventually to political power.

Campers who are members of an Oxnard high school group called Students For Cultural and Linguistic Democracy said they will try to help others realize that they all have the same problems.

"Coming from an ex-gang member's point of view, people of our age shouldn't have to worry about always watching their backs all the time," said Cindy Gutierrez, 18, a camp-out volunteer. "Instead of fighting each other, we should be fighting for each other."

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