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Padrinos : They Are Known as the Godfathers, Veteranos Whose Roots in East L.A. Run Deep. Their Days as Street Toughs Long Gone, They Are Now Committed to Reducing Bloodshed Caused by Latino Gang Warfare.

March 12, 1995|EFRAIN HERNANDEZ JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call themselves Padrinos--godfathers.

Many are carrying too much weight. Some are balding or gray-haired. And most, whether former gang members with prison experience or not, appear about as intimidating as church deacons.

Yet all of these men, with their roots in East Los Angeles, have been shaken enough by the devastating bloodshed caused by Latino gang warfare throughout the county to try to face the problem head-on.

"We are Chicano," said Miguel (Mike) Duran, 67, a soft-spoken yet influential Padrino who views gang affiliation as part of growing up in the barrios. "There's nothing wrong with being a gang member, but there is something wrong with being violent or taking drugs or terrorizing."

So as the struggle continues to turn youths away from gangs throughout the nation, the Padrinos take a grass-roots approach--Latino volunteers whose main qualifications are street savvy and devotion.

The group takes no government money. It has no office. And its members work discreetly, turning mainly to one another for help.

This is their pay-back to the community.

For the most part, the older men seek out and guide young Latino gang members toward jobs and education. They informally counsel their charges, sometimes sternly and other times lightheartedly, almost anywhere: a community center, a church or even a street corner.

Their days as street toughs long gone, the Padrinos focus on the future. They often use Spanish slang or raw language to get through to their younger homies; the carnales who make up today's gang brotherhood.

And they are also careful to avoid going overboard in bad-mouthing gangs or the younger men's possibly illicit activities. The legendary Mexican Mafia, for example, is a topic best left alone.

The old-timers say their group, which has about 20 active members and about 20 associate members, was created during the past few years to do what they believed most other gang programs were failing to do: reach primarily Mexican American youths growing up in East Los Angeles.

Their ultimate mission is to enhance the younger residents' self-esteem by showing them respeto (respect), helping them find work and building leadership in the community. The wisdom of former cholos from the barrios is supposed to help discourage the violence.

Although there are signs that some youths have been helped by the Padrinos, the bloodshed caused by Latino gangs in Los Angeles remains devastating.

Law enforcement authorities said there were 779 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County in 1994, and as many as three-quarters of the victims may have been Latinos. (An exact ethnic breakdown is expected within several weeks.)

In 1993, there were 720 gang-related homicides in the county; 314 of the victims were Latinos allegedly killed by other Latinos. And in 1992, when gang-related deaths peaked at 803, more than half, 441, involved Latino assailants and victims.

"I don't bad-mouth the groups. I think they're trying," said Sgt. Wes McBride of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gang unit. "But there are too few workers versus the thousands of gang members. I applaud their efforts and they've got to keep plugging, but it's just tough."

*

For the men who formed Padrinos, the killings meant they had to unite.

The group's members had proven their concern for the community over the years as probation officers, educators and religious and social service representatives.

They knew the neighborhoods, they knew the Chicano culture and they understood the gang dependency of many youths. Several also knew what it is like to serve prison time.

Many already worked for agencies that in one way or another were trying to stem gang influences on youths. They knew they could strengthen their efforts by working together, so they began meeting to discuss promoting role models and addressing community needs.

The chairman of the Padrinos is Alfredo V. Ortiz, 55, a bull of a man, thick and barrel-chested with heavily muscled arms that look like they can still cause serious damage.

"Right now what we need to do is get our young people back on track," said Ortiz, who works full time as director of the youth gang diversion program at the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA. "Many of our young people think they have to be a gang member first in order to be a Chicano."

Ortiz, who grew up in Lincoln Heights with a reputation as a kid who was quick to get into a fight, believes only Chicanos will truly help Chicanos.

"Nobody is creating opportunities. We're the only ones who care enough to do something," said Ortiz, who now lives in Gardena. "In a way, we're a little racist and separatist but we can't leave it up to somebody else."

One project the Padrinos are most proud of is recruiting young men to work for the U.S. Forest Service as members of an on-call firefighting crew. The Aztecs, which has about 20 members, was formed last year to help fight wildfires throughout California and elsewhere.

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