At 8:15 on a summer evening, 64 mothers, most of them Latinas, walk in a procession into the parking lot of a tiny stucco church in the poorest part of East Los Angeles. The women carry white candles that they shield from the evening wind. They sing hymns in Spanish as they walk: "I have faith that the men will sing. I have faith that this song will be a song of universal love." In the rectory, five more mothers are completing a meeting with members of the street gang known as The Mob Crew--TMC for short. A few days ago, the mothers met with Cuatro Flats, a rival gang that claims territory two blocks east. The gangs' enmity is particularly tragic because the members grew up together; they even share a set of brothers.
A week before, two young boys were killed in the course of this war: a 12-year-old Cuatro kid named Johnny and a 13-year-old named Joseph, who was mistaken for his 16-year-old TMC brother. The deaths spurred the mothers to organize these marches and meetings with the hope of hammering out a lasting truce between the two gangs, complete with a kind of multi-gang United Nations peacekeeping commission that will mediate future disputes.
The peace gathering in the rectory is just breaking up as the mothers form a huge circle in the parking lot. The women motion for the gang members to join the circle. At first, the homeboys look unsure in the face of this formidable bloc of feminine energy.
"C'mon now!" One of the mothers, a smallish woman named Pamela McDuffie, bustles out of the rectory, her long, magenta fingernails fluttering behind the reluctant young men whom she herds toward the circle.
"In their hearts they want this peace," Pam whispers to me, nodding toward the gang members, who have by now each taken a mother's hand. "You can see it in their faces."
Pam and the other mothers live in the twin housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, which combine to form the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi. Pico/Aliso is the poorest parish within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. According to statistics compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department, Pico/Aliso is also one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Last year, the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles occurred in the Hollenbeck division--and the highest concentration of gang activity in Hollenbeck was in the mile-square-plus Pico/Aliso housing projects. If life in Los Angeles is harsh and scary, it's scariest in Pico/Aliso.
I began driving to Pico/Aliso in the fall of 1990 to research a book on Latino gang members and the celebrated priest who works with them, Father Greg Boyle. In the beginning, I spent most of my time observing the homeboys who grabbed the headlines. It took a while for me to notice the community's women--and Pam.
I first observed her and the Pico/Aliso women in action in January of 1991 when they decided to have a showdown with the police department. For years, certain officers had been beating up the kids of the community and no amount of protests or complaints filed seemed to stop the abuse. The mothers had set up a telephone tree and called one another whenever the police had a kid "hemmed up," street parlance for spread-eagled, hands against the wall. The idea was that if there were witnesses, the police would behave appropriately. But the technique seemed only to inflame the officers, who shouted the women back inside with threats of arrest and beat on the boys anyway.
The mothers decided enough was enough. They invited Capt. Bob Medina, then-head of the Hollenbeck division, to attend a packed-to-the-rafters meeting at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church. Mother after mother came up to the microphone, told anecdotes and made demands for respect. Most of the women in the room hadn't finished high school. Many couldn't read. Nonetheless, the women looked the officers in the eyes and said, "If you cannot treat us and our kids as human beings, we'll do whatever it takes to get you fired."
The police got the point, and for a while, the violence diminished.
I live in Topanga, which prides itself on its activism, yet I doubted that my neighbors and I could have confronted the police so effectively. A week later, I became curious about the crowd of adult males I always saw gathering in the church parking lot each evening around 6. I was told that every night, in rotating shifts, Pam and the other women of the projects make dinner for 125 or so homeless men who sleep in the church. Moreover, every weekend, the same women walk the streets of the community in what had come to be called Love Walks, telling the gang members by their words and presence, "You are all our sons. We love you. We don't want you to kill each other." I began to think that the real story in East L.A. wasn't the gang members at all. It was the women.