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Around the Valley

Birth and Rebirth

Newborn Brings New Life to Ex-Gangbanger

September 20, 1997|JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PACOIMA — One late afternoon at the end of last year, Silverio went to the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Haddon Avenue and took a beating for Valerie.

For nearly a minute he lay curled on the sidewalk, absorbing the fists and boots of fellow gang members, all so that Valerie might never know abuse of any kind.

And when the kicks and punches had abated, Silverio rose from the concrete and staggered into a new life.

His own rebirth had been presaged by the swelling in his girlfriend's belly. It was confirmed on May 1, when Valerie was born. Since then, Silverio's answer to every temptation and threat from his beery, violent, drug-rolling former existence has been, "I got a daughter to think of."

Silverio is a slender, burr-headed 17-year-old who's on probation till December for yanking a gold chain from a woman's neck. Since being "jumped out" of the Pacoima gang, he's become a straight-A student and president of the student council at Osborne Community Education Center. He already takes classes at Mission College, and after he gets his high school diploma he'll seek a college degree, "to become a probation officer, or a teacher. I want to help out kids, teenagers with problems, like me."

Silverio participates in a new program for juveniles who not only have broken the law, but have committed the even more portentous offense of entering fatherhood without a clue to its demands and responsibilities, or the harrowing results of not meeting them.

The program, called L.A. Dads, teaches boys how to tend small children. Participants read to their young, and hold them close while listening to storytellers. It seeks to bond father to child while a father's early love is still good and sticky. It tries to instill in young males warped by the macho code of the streets the understanding that a father earns respect through sacrifice and attentiveness, not threat of physical punishment.

Funded as a one-year pilot project by a $724,000 grant from the California Youth Authority, L.A. Dads aims to break the cycle of incompetent, violent and/or absent fathers spawning boys who become incompetent, violent and/or absent fathers. This year a reported 1,564 boys in juvenile court probation camps and community-based programs will take part.

One morning last week, Silverio sat in health class at Osborne with a dozen boys and one girl, discussing a video on teen pregnancy. Why, teacher Antonio Leijas wanted to know, do teenage boys not use condoms when having sex?

"It takes away the feeling," mumbled one boy, setting off a hubbub of responses.

"It's too expensive," said another.

"No, it's free," said Silverio. "The real reason is they're too lazy to go and get them."

As Silverio spoke, the others fell silent to listen. Even in this distractible company, fatherhood carried a certain gravitas.

Men learn to father primarily from their fathers. Silverio's was a wife beater and a drug addict who was usually in jail. "My mom, she had to be my dad, too," Silverio explained after class. "Me, I don't touch my girlfriend. I just learned a lot from my mom teaching me love."

These days, Silverio lives with Valerie and her mother, Esmeralda Villanueva, in a small house behind his mother's. He and Esmeralda will marry, he says, and will have more children, but not until he finishes college.

Meanwhile, Valerie claims his time not spent in class or working as a house cleaner on weekends. He bathes her, washes her bottles, takes her to the park. His fatherhood is the hands-on type.

"I love looking at her smile," he confided when class was over. "She knows me pretty good. I'm always showing her dolls and making her laugh. The only thing I don't like is changing her diapers. That's the hardest job I do."

Whenever Esmeralda takes Valerie to the pediatrician for checkups, Silverio goes, too. He's learning the fatherly fine art of worrying. His love for her grows, he said, as she does. Still, he doesn't like thinking of her as someday being a 10-year-old or, God forbid, a teenager.

He is in the earliest, swooningest phase of father love, the phase in which, if everything goes right, the hook is set, and the fish is on the line for good.

L.A. Dads focuses on what fathers should do for babies, but babies also do things for fathers. A father is born to his children as they are born to him. Fatherhood, dutifully practiced, is inevitably transforming--redirecting a man's attention from himself to others, focusing him on the cause of the next generation, of making it kindlier, more comprehending, happier.

Father love is the love an attentive man never gets over, though lovable tykes shape-shift into grade-schoolers, then teens, then adults who live elsewhere.

Silverio has no illusions about what he owes Valerie. He shudders at the thought of her father as a drunken, clueless miscreant trapped in the lightless half-life of the gangs.

"I'm proud of her, and I want to do something positive in life for myself, for my kid," he said. "This is the first time I've been controlling myself. When she screams and cries, I don't take it personal; if I'm in a bad mood, I just go outside and take some deep breaths. I've been sober for almost a year. Becoming a father saved my life."

Silverio says all the right things, but he has only begun the long ordeal of aligning his actions with them. Already, however, he is a rarity, a bracing breeze in the faces of his educators, who labor in a milieu where indifference and failure hang thickly in the air.

"It's you who makes me want to come to work every morning," Osborne Principal Marsha Watkins told Silverio as he took his leave to return to class.

Then, smiling and shaking her head, she wondered aloud, "What would this kid be like if he'd had an OK dad?"

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