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For Some, Pacoima Is More Than Just Mean Streets to Be Avoided

Many keep their distance, but for others, it's where they were raised. One woman isn't deterred from visiting old haunts. The Pacoima I grew up in, while not devoid of gangs . . . was a safe place.

September 08, 1996|MARY HELEN PONCE | Mary Helen Ponce is a writer who lives in Sunland. She is working on a biography of a Hispanic woman writer

While talking with an old friend recently, I mentioned having attended Mass at Guardian Angel Church in Pacoima, where in the 1940s both he and I were baptized and confirmed. I described the changes en la iglesia, the church: The altar now faces the congregation, upholstered pews and a communion rail made of brass. I urged him to join me at Sunday Mass, to relive our childhood a bit.

He declined, saying: "I never drive down Van Nuys Boulevard anymore--too much violence. . . . I don't want to die from a stray bullet."

Although I was dismayed at this spiteful reference to what was once Pacoima's main street, I understood perfectly what he meant. It brought to mind an incident I'd thought forgotten.

During the 1970s I was active in PTA. I volunteered at a PTA-sponsored "clothes closet" that donated clothes to needy students. It was located in the San Fernando Valley. I drove up with another PTA member and was appalled when, rather than drive down Van Nuys Boulevard, she chose to drive clear around, bypassing the "ghetto" that had been my childhood home.

"My husband won't let me drive through Pacoima," she explained. "No telling what might happen, what with all those . . ." I stared at my co-worker, trying not to smirk at this (yes, white) woman who was certain that Mexicans along Van Nuys Boulevard were out to assault her.

It's now the 1990s; nothing has changed. Nada. Awhile back, I ran into a cousin who was born in Pacoima but now lives in Simi Valley. Much to my regret, I asked him about his parents, who still live in Pacoima. He fixed me with a dark look, saying: "I never drive down Van Nuys Boulevard past five in the afternoon. And never, ever, on weekends. In fact, I make excuses not to visit my folks. Just last week--minutes after I drove down Van Nuys to Laurel Canyon--some guy sitting in his car was shot. I hate to say it, but if I never go to Pacoima again, it's fine with me."

A few days ago, while visiting my nephew, who earns his living as an artist (signs, posters), he lamented how he has lost so much business since he moved back to Pacoima to help care for his mother. "When I mention Pacoima, people are afraid to come out here," he said. "The customers are leery."

The Pacoima I grew up in, while not devoid of gangs or pachucos--zoot-suiters--was a safe place. My friends and I drove bikes up and down Van Nuys Boulevard, and during Holy Week we hiked the Pacoima hills adjacent to Whiteman Airport. On summer nights old ladies sat on front porches to swap gossip and tales of la llorona--the legendary weeping woman--while small kids chased stray dogs.

Still, not everyone is paranoid. One of my siblings still attends Sunday Mass in our old parish. And, some time back, a friend and I attended services at our old church and from there went to a movie.

But last year, while at my former parish to request a copy of my baptismal certificate, I tried to sneak into the church for a quick prayer. Mostly, I wanted to reminisce about the old days and peek at the choir loft from where I once waved at my friends. But the church doors were bolted; iron bars lay across the stained glass windows.

Thinking perhaps a side door was unlocked, I went to the back, where I encountered a man sweeping leaves. I explained about the door, but he was mostly concerned with where I had parked. "You gotta be careful around here," he cautioned.

It could be my cousin is wise not to drive the "mean" Pacoima streets past 5, but what about the rest of us?

Who says I can't visit my old school? Relatives? Attend Mass at my old parish? If I stay away from my hometown, what will I have to remember?

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