None stands much taller than 5 feet, but mustered together, two dozen strong, these mothers form a determined picket at the crossroads of youth and violent death.
They come to 1st and Clarence streets in Boyle Heights every Friday night because some of those who have died here in the latest gang war hot zone have barely crossed from childhood into adolescence.
Gangs have long fought their turf battles here and at nearby intersections of the Pico-Aliso housing projects. Their members, and bystanders, fall in numbers that vary from year to year. This year's tally of five--four during the summer alone--is unusually high for Pico-Aliso, police say.
But if the story can be told in numbers, they are 13 and 14, for the youngest victims, who fell on consecutive days in early June.
Their passing was largely unheralded, in contrast to the hue and cry that attended the shooting death of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, a passenger in a car riddled by gang members' bullets after it turned down a dead-end street in Cypress Park on Sept. 17.
In a city seemingly inured to curbside violence, the mothers of Pico-Aliso have emerged as a reminder that every mother's worst nightmare is to see her child on either side of a gun; every mother's child is mourned.
In recent months, the mothers of Pico-Aliso--known formally as the Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio (Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood) have confronted violence in their neighborhood with tactics that are more perilous and passionate.
In one instance, the mothers formed a human wall between taunting rivals after a funeral for the last of the five young men slain this summer. On another occasion, a gang member threatened one of the mothers with a gun.
And still, they come.
On any given Friday, the mothers display a banner that says "\o7 Raza, Que Pasa\f7 ?" a weighted phrase for which the closest English evocation was singer Marvin Gaye's exasperated cry of "What's going on?"
The answer is implied in the candle-lit faces of the mothers: There are too many of us dying.
"There was always an intention to confront the violence," said Leonardo Vilchis, a community organizer from Dolores Mission Roman Catholic parish, where the mothers' group is based. "But we couldn't come as outsiders. We had to approach it with love: 'It's because we love you that we want you to stop shooting.' If gang members know the mothers and the mothers know the gang members, it's hard to shoot."
That logic has held through many a violent season.
The committee began holding "love marches" and peace barbecues in the projects during a violent period in 1991. But their actions never were confined to holding--or wringing--hands. They aimed a maternal wrath at police, whom they accused of brutality, and even the Jesuit hierarchy, over keeping Father Gregory Boyle, a leader in the fight against violence, at Dolores Mission.
Clad in a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt with faded letters that proclaimed "The Boss," Natividad Lopez urged the mothers to defy and embrace the gang members who routinely shoot at one another across the crowded space of these public housing areas east of Downtown.
"We've always had marches, because the situation is so desperate with all the shooting," Lopez said. "As mothers, we can cross into different neighborhoods and they don't ask us 'Why are you in this neighborhood?' "
The 40-year-old Salvadoran was among the mothers attending the July funeral of the latest victim of gang violence when they were all put to a test.
Members of the Cuatro Flats gang walked provocatively down Gless Street, the turf of TMC (The Mob Crew), to a funeral Mass in Dolores Mission Church. By the time it was over, rival gangs lined the streets, Lopez said.
"They got out of cars with pistols!" said Lopez, still awed by the memory.
The women promptly surrounded the Cuatro Flats members and began walking them home, at times shoving and holding them back when they surged toward their taunters.
"We made a wall of just women," Lopez said. "There were some women grabbing as many as two kids. At first we were afraid, but we prayed for the power and we felt it."
Father Boyle, who said the Mass, was startled to see the reaction of the gang to its rough maternal escort.
"You could tell that they actually \o7 liked\f7 being held back," Boyle said. "They were physically and lovingly held back."
The mothers' action may have been the most affection some of those gang members ever felt, Boyle noted. It also gave the mothers an added measure of confidence in their unique power: Simply put, it's hard to shoot someone's mother.
"We're part of everyone, because what we are about is that all of them live," Lopez said.
Although encouraged by the women's undaunted spirit, Boyle worries about a recent threat by a gang member. Two days after a recent Friday night vigil, a pair of gang members threatened to shoot one of the group's more ardent members.