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Streetwise Youths and Execs Mingle : Corporate culture: Six members of Salud, an anti-gang group, are special guests at a Latino business conference at a posh Beverly Hills hotel.

March 19, 1995|TIM MAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sonia Munoz, 18, of San Fernando entered the Beverly Hilton Hotel, rushed past the valets, the bellboys and the simulated waterfall in the marble foyer, and went straight to the pay phones. Her boyfriend had paged her as she was en route from the headquarters of her anti-gang youth group, Salud, and she needed to return his call.

Her mission that night was to mingle in the world of commerce but, for a moment at least, it would have to wait. Her boyfriend beckoned.

Munoz's rush to the phones captured the contrasting experiences of six members of Salud invited by telecommunications giant MCI to a recent Latino business conference at the posh hotel. The aim was to give these people--two of them onetime high school dropouts, two of them ex-gang members--practice maneuvering in a high-powered, corporate social setting.

"What this is about is, let's not be intimidated in different atmospheres," said Salud's founder and director, Augie Maldonado, as he drove one of two vans carrying the Salud members from San Fernando to the Wilshire Boulevard hotel.

From barrio to boardroom is a big jump, but Maldonado hopes they can make it--and at times they gave him good reason to think they will.

Munoz may have been sidetracked by her boyfriend, but her sister, Norma, 19, brought her back to the business at hand. "Let's go, Sonia," Norma said, and off they went down the carpeted hallway to the Grand Ballroom.

For some of the youths, the experience was a strange but welcome diversion from the gritty streets of San Fernando.

The Munoz sisters, who wore pink and blue floral dresses, took their mission seriously, mingling and politely questioning the product managers behind the booths.

"We like learning by doing, not sitting in the class with a teacher staring at you with a blank face," Norma said. "We like talking to people and going out and seeing, you know, how things work in the real world."

Both sisters attend a continuing education program for high school students in Granada Hills.

Maldonado also used the evening to thank MCI for a recent $10,000 grant. During an impromptu presentation of a photo collage that Salud had put together as a thank you, 16-year-old Ernie (Tito) Rodriguez was supposed to make a few comments on behalf of Salud, but he was nowhere to be found.

Clearing his throat and chuckling nervously, Maldonado explained that "Tito must have gotten cold feet. I hope you can forgive him." Maldonado presented the collage to MCI with the help of Norma and Julio Martinez.

As the three presented the collage, Rodriguez entered the back of the room, waved and smiled at Maldonado. Later, he sheepishly confided that he missed the ceremony "because I was on the phone with my homegirl. I forgot about my speech."

Despite the mishap, Rodriguez, a member of a gang since age 10, clearly enjoyed the evening. For the occasion, he had belted his slender frame into a clean pair of size-44 waist Ben Davis baggies (with stapled cuffs) and donned a chambray shirt. He relished the fancy ballroom and the fajita buffet, but he was clearly moved the most by a teleconferencing video display, where Rodriguez chatted via videophone with Jackie, a smiling MCI executive sitting behind her desk in San Francisco.

"I'm trippin'. They got some trippin' stuff in here," he said, shaking his head, downing his fourth soda.

Julio Martinez, 20, the oldest of the group, adopted a corporate look for the night, wearing a charcoal suit, dark tie, suspenders and black wingtips. His shirt collar barely covered the bubbled, pocked scars on his neck, where tattoos once advertised his gang affiliation.

"It's a whole different world," he said, looking around the ballroom and playing with the knot in his tie. "I want to be somebody. Somebody."

On the way out, he picked up a scholarship application at a booth sponsored by the Hispanic Business College Fund and tucked it inside his jacket.

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